More companies are making provisions for staff to embrace their religion at work – and the trend is paying off with reported benefits including improved productivity, higher turnover and greater employee morale. When The Economist published its millennium issue in December 1999, it included an obituary of God. For a publication famed for its incisive analysis, it made a spectacular miscalculation. In the 21st century, with so many people identifying by faith, God is alive and well.
Levels of belief and religious practice around the world are high. Indeed the Blair Foundation estimates that four billion people – more than half of the world’s population – are of faith. There is much talk of declining levels of church attendance in the UK, but this is offset by the growth of certain Christian denominations and also the demographic rise of minority faith groups. In the last 20 years, and certainly since 9/11, the prominence of faith in the public arena has risen. There are now more mentions of faith in the media, more faith-related debates in parliament and there is even a government minister responsible for faith communities.
Business cannot ignore the rise of faith. Since last year, interventions by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have focused on economics. Pope Francis has emphasised his concern for the plight of the poor and Justin Welby has been critical of payday lenders. In the UK, around 70 per cent of people say they belong to a faith, according to the results of the 2011 census, which also showed that there are growing numbers in minority faith groups such as the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities.
Through demographic change, the British workplace is becoming more multi-faith. It is increasingly common for people to work with at least one person from another religious or ethnic background, or, at least, encounter ‘the other’ in a work context through customers, clients, partners or suppliers.
Four intersection points between business and faith can be identified. First, faith is a day-to-day issue for some in the workplace, affecting dietary requirements, time off for festivals or dress (whether the turban, hijab or skullcap). The case of the right of a British Airways stewardess to wear a cross at work has shone a spotlight on this area.
The modern company needs to think about managing religious beliefs at work, and ensure that it does not discriminate on religious grounds.
The obligations are not all one-sided; those who are religiously observant must ensure that the freedom to practise their religion does not affect their productivity or output, making up time if they need to attend prayers or be absent for festivals, for example. Second, some businesses have gone further than accommodating belief in the workplace by setting up faith networks for employees. This allows employees to integrate their religion at work by offering prayer sessions during working hours. Research by McKinsey Australia showed that faith-friendly companies which use such techniques benefit from improved productivity and turnover.
Third, working with faith communities can pave the way for new business, clients and markets. Some faith-based firms target customers in certain communities, capitalising on higher levels of trust within groups. Conversely, working beyond the boundaries of ethnic or faith communities can also increase tolerance and understanding. Islamic finance is an area for opportunity, and in June the UK became the first country outside the Muslim world to issue an Islamic bond.
Fourth, people of faith have a value system which informs and inspires their work. That does not always mean their behaviour is saintly, but they have a framework on which to base their behaviour.
At its best, faith can inspire responsible business and bring morality to markets. The London Citizens group, for example, has been influenced by faith groups, and campaigns for the living wage. The motivation of such campaigners often comes from a deep religious conviction.
Modern business needs to be ‘faith literate’. In the real world, there can be tensions between God and Mammon, but companies which embrace workers of faith and related issues will find themselves with more contented employees and even winning new business.
Zaki Cooper is a communications professional and a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews