One of the first images that come to mind when you use the word “inclusive workspace” is seeing a work bay full of women employees. So rare is the image in the Indian corporate sector —with a 10 per cent drop in the workforce in the last three years — that this immediately becomes a novel concept. However, while an inclusive workspace does point to the inclusion of women followed by gender parity in all sections, it doesn’t stop there. As we gear up to celebrate Eid this week, we are forced to ask ourselves this: how inclusive are we of religious identities and cultural symbolism in the workforce?
Last year, an acquaintance told me about the drama at her workplace during Eid. They were refused a holiday because the HR thought that two Ganesh Chaturthi holidays were already tipping the scales. Things got problematic, and the head HR had to be flown in from Delhi. The solution was then that most religious holidays got turned into optional holidays, except for Diwali. Not the ideal answer if you ask me. Honouring religion at work can be tough, but there is an obvious solution here. Either you celebrate all faiths equally, or you remove any form of religious expression. In a country like India, we cannot afford to be partially inclusive simply because that takes away from our very identity of being a democracy.
As a Muslim woman, I’ve got to admit that the debate gains momentum for me during the month of Ramzan. As someone who is fasting and wants to offer prayers, where do we find the space to do that? If you Google this question – which I did – a page opens up on Quora with Muslim men and women giving suggestions on finding a clean and quiet place to offer prayers at work. There are barely any statistics that point towards an inclusive workforce that provides prayer rooms. So, unless you work at the airport or companies that take religious freedom seriously (which is quite tiny a number), you pretty much have to make do with an empty meeting room or an empathic colleague who steps out of his/her cabin for twenty minutes.
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I’ve heard two sides to this story. A friend recently told me about her manager, who went out of her way to accommodate her Ramzan schedule. “We are allowed to take two-hour lunch breaks, and since we are fasting, my manager allows us to head to the sick room and rest.” My own experience has been kind colleagues who willingly emptied their cabins for half-an-hour while we prayed. However, I’ve also heard of colleagues being asked to “stay at home” if they wanted to be so religious. The question here is not whether or not your colleagues accommodate you; instead, offices need to offer a separate space where you can express your religion. This is not limited to Muslims during Ramzan; you can use this space to offer puja, meditate or reflect — regardless of your faith or absence of one.
The other question is food. In my ten-year-long career, I’ve been to multiple Eid parties at work, but are offices really looking out for the needs of their Muslim employees? Are we really making sure that the meat on offer is halal? In fact, do we even serve meat at these parties? It’s one thing when the office has a strict vegetarian-only policy and quite another when they order food that the majority likes, and not what the occasion demands. Or have “heat veg-food only” microwaves! Another question that comes up during Ramzan is whether or not canteens are open till 7 PM to ensure that people can get their iftaar meals on time? It’s a bit of a stretch to expect employers to let you leave work at 4 PM, for an entire month, just so you can reach home in time for iftaar. In this case, then employees should be offered an alternative rather than a solution like: “order in from somewhere na!”.
Another dimension to accepting religious and even cultural identity is dressing. Things only get trickier here. It’s rare to see Muslim women in hijab or a burqa or Muslim men wear their beards and skull caps, and not be met with stares. I’ve heard of acquaintances narrating incidents where they were asked to “dress formally” and do away with the beard and the burqa. A friend also told me about how his boss refused to interview a candidate simply because he was wearing the traditional dress of Lord Ayappa’s devotees. He was asked to wear a suit and come back “when this is over”.
When employees are expected to bring in their A-game to work, why are we so unwilling to accept what is a large part of their identity? While a diverse workforce leads to better performance, inclusion is what connects people to the business. A place where your religious and cultural identities would be accepted would immediately translate to you as an employee feeling included and appreciated.
A case study of an office in New Jersey probably deals with this question best. Instead of deciding whether or not the company would allow religious freedom, HR took a vote. Because 60 per cent of employees voted that they considered themselves to be religious, the company immediately made inclusive policies.
At the end of the day, to be inclusive at a larger level, this does seem like a great idea. Ask yourself how you can create the best culture that’s authentic to your brand, and let your employees answer.
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