What do you say to people at this time of year nowadays if you don’t know what their background is?
This issue struck me again last week with the extraordinary success of the hash tag #illridewithyou that arose out of the Sydney siege. That simple hash tag was such a wonderful way of embracing the whole community and expressing our understanding that the acts of one lone deranged man did not represent everyone else who shared his religion.
But December isn’t just about Christmas. It is so jam-packed full of religious and non-religious observances, it is sometimes difficult to know whether you wish people Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa or something else.
Many people today say ‘Happy Holiday’ and hold generic holiday season or festive season get-togethers. Yet often such a party will happen in a room full of Christmas decorations with a beautiful Christmas tree somewhere in the corner.
According to Reverend Mark E Fowler of the Tanenbaum Centre for Inter-religious Understanding in New York it’s okay to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or an alternative greeting if you know the person celebrates the holiday. If you don’t know, it’s also okay to ask.
Reverend Fowler says that, as a nation such as Australia becomes more diverse, the way religion shows up in the workplace also diversifies For example, in 2011, he said, there were 41,000 Christian offshoots. “It would be a fool’s errand to try to figure them all out,” he said, so it’s important to look at religion holistically rather than narrowly.
Religion can become most salient just when a manager may not expect it, Fowler said, such as when an employee asks to take time off for a religious observance. A manager cannot say “I don’t know that tradition,” or “Someone else of the same faith has not asked for time off,” but must take all requests seriously and provide reasonable accommodation for the employee.
How can managers be more sensitive and respectful of different religions in the workplace? Reverend Fowler says to apply the “platinum rule”: Treat others as they would like to be treated.
“Avoid assumptions, be curious, and ask questions respectfully, identify and debunk stereotypes, and acknowledge and apologise for mistakes,” he said.
Fowler also suggested that managers engage in respectful communication, and “consider your own ‘lens’ toward religious diversity, and acknowledge the diversity among and within traditions.”
He also said that events, meetings, and other activities should be scheduled with sensitivity towards other religious observances, with tools such as Outlook’s interfaith calendar helping workplaces big and small to be aware of these. He also believes it’s important to be sensitive towards colleagues’ dietary observances.
For a vegetarian, “it is depressing to go to a workplace function and be offered a tossed salad as the only vegetarian option.” Dietary accommodation is “low-hanging fruit,” an easy problem to solve, he said.
Reverend Fowler said there is a gap between how we perceive our own treatment of religious differences and how we feel treated by others in the workplace.
“It is essential to look for opportunities to engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations to ask ‘What is comfortable for you?’ instead of making assumptions.”