Podcast Ep. 64: Religion in the Workplace: Interfaith Skills to Engage Difference Continued

May 18, 2021

In this special bonus episode of The Forum Podcast, Megan Hughes Johnson (Interfaith Youth Core) and Jenan Mohajir (Interfaith Youth Core)  answer questions from listeners that attended May 6, 2021 Diversity Insights Presentation webinar Religion in the Workplace: Interfaith Skills to Engage Difference.

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Megan and Jenan answer questions from our listening audience around these talking points:

  • The separation of church and state.
  • How to convince others it’s ok to talk about religion at work
  • Tension between religious communities and LGBTQ rights
  • How to address conflict when someone’s faith conflicts with someone else’s practices
  • Best practices in interfaith engagement, setting Brave Space
  • How to incorporate religion into DEI work
  • How to integrate religion into the DEI overall strategy

For additional context and insight into this topic and conversation, watch the replay of Religion in the Workplace: Interfaith Skills to Engage Difference.



The Forum on Workplace Inclusion 2021 podcast series is sponsored by Best Buy. More diversity in tech means more ideas that can change the world. Learn more@bestbuy.com slash more of this.


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Ben Rue  01:45

Hello, and thank you for tuning in for today’s special podcast. Religion in the workplace interfaith skills to engage difference continued with Megan Hughes Johnson and  Jenan Mohajir of Interfaith Youth core. I’m Ben Rue program associate here at The Forum on Workplace Inclusion. As the name suggests, this podcast is a continuation of our recent diversity insights presentation, religion in the workplace interfaith skills to engage difference, which also included Farah Siddiqui, of Salesforce, and Parth Bhansali, of Groupon, Megan and Jenan, have been gracious enough to come back to answer some questions we weren’t able to get to during the original presentation. So let’s hop on in.

Ben Rue  02:27

Thank you both so much for coming back to answer these questions. I’m really looking forward to this conversation. But before we jump into the questions, could you tell us a little bit about Interfaith Youth core and the work that you all do?

Megan Hughes Johnson  02:40

Sure, absolutely. And we are excited to be back with you to Ben. So thank you for the invitation.

Megan Hughes Johnson  02:46

So Ifyc. We’re a national nonprofit based in Chicago, we were founded in 2002 by eboo Patel, and our mission is to bridge religious divides in order to advance the common good. So we’ve worked with international NGOs and government agencies. And then over the past 15 years or so our work has been primarily in higher education, so training student leaders, supporting educators with curricular resources and grants and tools, and then working with institutional leaders as well to do assessment and strategic planning. And recently, we’ve been getting more knocks on our door to bring our resources and tools into the corporate space. So I think after the murder of George Floyd last summer, a lot of companies were renewing a focus on engaging diversity, which led to perhaps a new or maybe renewed focus on how does religion fit in to that conversation? Yeah, so we’re excited to be here with you to have been invited to be part of this conversation with the Forum.

Ben Rue  03:52

Yeah, like I said, we’re excited to have you back. And before we can before we jump into the questions, but could you tell us a little bit about who you are and your roles at IFYC.

Megan Hughes Johnson  04:03

Sure, Jenan, do you want to start?

Jenan Mohajir  04:05

Sure, I’m happy to My name is Jenan Mohajir. I’m the Senior Director of leadership at IFYC I often like to say I was someone actually Megan you’re in this in this bracket too. I was someone who joined IFYC in its baby phase when we were starting up over a decade ago and it’s been my privilege to be involved in this work for as long as I have.

Megan Hughes Johnson  04:28

And I am Megan Hughes Johnson and like Jenan I have been an IFYC since the early days and have worn many hats over the years. Now I am senior consultant for strategic initiatives and oversee IFYC consulting work with institutional partners, primarily with colleges and universities, but increasingly with partners in the business sector as well.

Ben Rue  04:52

Great. Thank you both for the work you do and for coming back like I said, so we’re gonna hop right in. So there were a lot of great questions and a lot of great discussion during this diversity insights presentation. And so what we’ve done is we’ve taken a look at the q&a and the chats, and we’ve broken it down into, like blocks, like sections, or thematic blocks. So the first one that we’re going to talk tackle we’re talking about is the separation of church and state, or like the separation of religion and work, especially when that work is in like the government per se. So one of the questions is, what might we be able to do to convince legal departments that it’s okay to talk about religion at work?

Megan Hughes Johnson  05:38

Yeah, this is a great question. And I’ll kind of get started and then Jenan, please jump in here. So first, just to say there’s lots of good legal scholarship out there on the Establishment Clause and the first amendment right. So I would point people to do some research, you can find some really helpful information that helps unpack historically how the separation of church and state was framed, how it’s been interpreted over time. But I would just summarize to say, the constitutional standard is actually neutrality, right, ensure that workplaces don’t prefer one community or tradition over another. So if you are approaching this conversation through an explicitly interfaith lens, which engages all religious and non religious communities equally, that would be constitutionally permissible. And, and I would sort of deepen that to say that the focus here is on education, right and reasonable accommodations for individual diverse religious practice. It’s not on proselytizing, it’s not on trying to lift up one practice or tradition over another. And so we often find that it’s useful to start by saying, Listen, to be an educated citizen in the world today, we need to know something about diverse religious traditions, we live in a globally diverse community, how do we understand different practices, different needs different traditions, in order to both support the people in our workforce, as well as to educate the broader community to be effective leaders. So if we translate that to specifically a global business context, you know, knowing something about diverse religious practice is going to make our business outcome stronger, it’s going to make us better partners with our global and perhaps, certainly as well, domestic clients. Jenan, What else would you add there?

Jenan Mohajir  07:32

I think what I what I would add is to kind of point back to IFYC core methodology, which is really about, you know, interfaith cooperation or, or encouraging people to,to get to know one another is really about respect. It’s about mutually inspiring relationships. And it’s about figuring out what common action looks like. And in this case, you know, when you’re in a community that works together, your common action is also inherently tied into those relationships. And I think that’s a very different way of thinking about religious diversity than necessarily just thinking about it as a space of telling people about religion, or talking about religion from a proselytizing view. It’s really about the people, and how and the role that religion plays in their lives. And as they come to work as their full selves, you know, how does that? How is that? How are we looking at that aspect of who people are and how they relate to one another?

Megan Hughes Johnson  08:31

Yeah, yeah.

Ben Rue  08:33

One comment was, you know, about someone who works for a government or organization that they attempted to acknowledge Ramadan one year, but one person made a complaint. And then they had to take the poster down, which was just acknowledging Ramadan.

Jenan Mohajir  08:47

Yeah, that was interesting to me, because I wondered if, if I think every workplace is different. And to me, I was wondering, you know, are there similar objections around Christmas or Easter? And if there are, then I think it’s a different conversation. And, you know, thinking about what is you know, every every workplace is different, and the limitations within those spaces are different. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that and to work with, you know, what’s possible. And I think, let’s interrogate like, what are norms and how we’re thinking about those norms?

Ben Rue  09:22

Definitely, this next question, or next group could be a little bit fraught, but it’s about the tensions between religious communities and LGBTQ community. How does someone address conflict when someone’s faith conflicts with someone else’s practices, for example, religion, various religions and the LGBTQ community?

Megan Hughes Johnson  09:49

Yeah, this this one is, unfortunately, a question that we hear often and so a couple things just to start, I think it’s important to differentiate between issues of harassment and bias, right? That those need to be addressed directly and immediately if someone continues to miss gender a trans person in your workplace, that’s an HR issue. Right? So that needs to be addressed directly. What we often hear about are issues that fall into a more gray realm what what about assumptions that are made or tensions that people feel and the response or sort of the foundation that we offer at IFYC. Coming back to what Jenan just mentioned, is, we’re going to start with assumptions of deep disagreement across our identities, right? We start by recognizing that the world we live in the workplaces we occupy, we come in, we bring our unique identities. And rather than say, oh, we’re all really just the same, we start by saying, actually, we believe very different things. And the question becomes, how do we learn to live together and build a communal life together across those disagreements across those deep divides? And the way that we frame? The answer to that question is through building relationships that are rooted in common ground rooted in common values? And so we would start there by starting to I liked Jenan’s word interrogate, you know, what’s really going on in your workplace? What are what is the situation? How can you point to if there are specific HR violations that need to be addressed? And then separately, how are you proactively creating spaces where people can come to know one another, acknowledging these disagreements and then finding commonality and common ground?

Jenan Mohajir  11:42

I just and I just want to add to that, I think, you know, starting off in the place of safety, so if this is an issue of bias, or it’s an issue of harassment, there’s a very clear sense of what needs to happen in that case. And there’s certainly, you know, I’m sure that there’s policies and ways or pathways to protection for people if that is the case, I think the cultural question of how to navigate some of those conversations is a place where, where I would say we can we can set some new norms, and show curiosity, we often like to say that we want to create brave spaces of conversation where people are entering, recognizing that there are deep differences, and there are going to be points of tension. The art here is how do you still respect someone? How do you still build a relationship, maintain a relationship with your colleagues and co workers understanding that those differences exist, and understanding that it is important to see each other’s humanity in our entirety, see each other’s humanity in the way that we approach each other in the way that we are in relationship with each other and in the way that we think about one another. And that’s, that is the place where I think we you know, IFYC model has a very particular role to play.

Ben Rue  13:05

Speaking of brave spaces. How do you make sure things don’t derail in a brave space? Like, aside from the rules, you need a moderator or coach?

Jenan Mohajir  13:19

That’s a good question. And Megan, feel free to feel free to add to this as well, I think, you know, brave spaces are spaces that are intentionally that have to be intentionally created. So I think some sort of community agreements or community guidelines around having those conversations are important. And they can be sort of goalposts in terms of, you know, a way to kind of, to check ourselves and to also return to those agreements. If there’s, you know, if there is a person who is, is voicing some hurt or voicing some discomfort. So that there’s there’s a set of guidelines to help us navigate that. I think it’s helpful to have a moderator if it’s a new brave space, if it’s a space that’s, that has folks who don’t know each other very well or who haven’t been in this sort of vulnerable conversation with one another before. I think it’s helpful to have moderators, I also think that sometimes it takes those spaces take practice, and those spaces Take, take time to build because the trust that has to exist in order for us to be truly vulnerable and truly, you know, being able to kind of sit in discomfort that trust takes time to build. So it’s important, I think, to have some, some of those bases, you know, it’s helpful to have moderators. I also think some of that also happens over time when we’re able to build some of that trust. Megan, anything to add to that.

Megan Hughes Johnson  14:56

I would just underscore everything You just said and say, I find it really useful to differentiate between a safe space and brave space. So the term brave space was first put out into the higher ed sphere in 2013 by two educators at NYU, Brian around Christy Clements, who wrote a piece called from safe spaces to brave spaces, and we at IFYC have taken our definitions from that work. But they, they basically describe how safe space as they were using that term on campus, they realize that a couple of things, one, that safe space doesn’t actually exist, right, you can’t block out the world and create a sense of safety. When students are going to bring all of their experiences into that room, you can’t protect them right and call a space safe, when they’re bringing all of the experiences and perhaps the the negative experiences they’ve had into that space. So even in that room, safety isn’t necessarily going to be guaranteed for anyone when you’re bringing people from diverse backgrounds together. And then the other thing they point out is that we don’t learn as Jenan was just saying, We don’t learn when we are safe, right? We don’t we need to be educators know that you have to kind of push your students or participants outside of their comfort zone in order to begin the learning process. Now, you don’t want to push them too far to where they shut down. But there’s that sort of middle ground that we’re aiming for where people are being scooted out of their comfort zone and being put into what we are calling this brave space where they’re taking risks. They’re being vulnerable intentionally. And it’s that’s where this, this learning and these connections can happen.

Ben Rue  16:47

What if you have a conflict where that respect requires engagements, that someone feels calm conflicts with their beliefs, such as addressing a co worker by their pronouns, for one party, it’s painful harassment, and for the other, you’re asking them to accept someone in a way they don’t by addressing them.

Jenan Mohajir  17:04

And I’m happy to give my opinion on that, Megan, feel free to pitch in, I think, you know, when it comes to things like pronouns, I think it’s the if the person identifies in a certain way, the way to respect them is to respect and engage them in the way that they would like to be engaged. So So to me, that’s, you know,in that case, the respect is owed to the person who is identifying and is saying, This is my pronoun, or this is my preferred pronoun that needs to be taken into consideration. And that needs to be the line that is drawn. So I know that that might be that might sound very simple. And I know that it’s very complicated. But I do think that in this case, in those kinds of cases, we err on the side of the person who is asking for that, you know, who’s asking to be recognized in a certain way? Megan, any pushback on that, or any difference of opinion?

Megan Hughes Johnson  17:58

No, I would just say I do think that the setting the brave space ahead of time, can give a foundation for responding when instances like this come up, because they will, right? So then part of the brave space idea is that you are intentionally creating a framework for how you’re going to be having interactions in the workplace, whether those be formal or informal. And so you’re saying these are the commitments we’re making to one another in this space. And if you can list those out proactively, then when you face struggles or challenges, you have something to fall back to and say, here’s what we’ve agreed to, you know, how do we come back to this brave space that we are committed to together?

Ben Rue  18:44

Sometimes, that is, the simplest route is the best? Yeah, and it’s, and a lot of time is as simple as setting the ground rules ahead of time. And just letting people know, like the like, this is what you can expect in the space or what we expect of you in the space, which I think makes it up. Yeah, keeps it simple. And allows you to have these brave, brave conversations.

Ben Rue  19:12

Well, this I I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed this conversation again, thank you both so much for coming back. This question I think is is our last but I think it’s a great way to the perfect last question is how like the How to incorporate religion into DEI work, like religion is a religion is a protected class yet it’s rarely talked about in the business case. For Dei, we tend to focus on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Typically, how can we integrate religion into the DEI overall strategy?

Megan Hughes Johnson  19:46

Yeah, this is a great question. And we’ve seen the same dynamic at play in in our work with higher education. And so you know, understandably, dei work has focused on race ethnicity, gender, sexual But we know that religious identity is one of the most salient identities individuals carry, right? Whether that be a personal belief or a cultural practice or a family history. And it’s also one of the more complex identity categories to navigate because of all the reasons we’ve been talking about right already. And so we’ve seen success when companies use the same structures, they have set up for other dei conversations, and then began to intentionally carve out a space for engaging religion. So for example, you know, if you have a lunch and learn series, where you’re exploring different aspects of diversity and identity, bring in a speaker, bring in someone to come and talk about the salience and relevance of religion and religious identity. So, you know, at our organization, eboo Patel has been invited to several spaces like this to tell his story to talk about interfaith engagements. And we’ve seen an interest in that and have that being slotted into existing dei conversations or series, offering links to resources or virtual training videos that are out there, you know, getting creative with how do we use the platforms that we already have to start to introduce this aspect of identity and to think about it as an aspect of identity, right. And to treat it as such. It’s kind of step one, and, you know, Farah Siddiqui, on the webinar at Salesforce shared so well about faithforce, Salesforce is interfaith, ERG, and she got a lot of questions in the chat and in the q&a about how they were set up, you know, how they’re structured. So that’s one example of a company that’s really taking religious identity seriously, and creating faithforce’s model after some of their other what they call equality groups, for other identities. And, you know, I’ll kind of summarize IFYC thinks about engaging religion in the workplace and in three ways. So the first piece is, how are we creating spaces to support diverse religious practice? So whether that be dietary accommodations or holiday observance, etc. And I like to think of this a little bit like the opening move in a chess game, right? So for, for those like me, who binged the Queen’s gambit, there’s an episode where the main character Beth Harmon, the child chess prodigy, she reads stacks of books just on the various strategies for this opening chess move, right. And so that’s how important and influential the opening move can be, it opens up the chessboard sets the stage for the whole game strategy. And similarly, I think accommodating diverse religious practice and a workplace, it’s also critical as that foundation for engaging religion in the workplace. But if it’s the only move you’ve got, you aren’t going to win the game, right? You need to build on that. So then the second way that you’re engaging religion in the workplace is to create spaces for employees to intentionally engage one another’s identities. And that can be through formal spaces, like dialog groups, or book clubs. It can be spaces for informal relationship building, where people are really sharing specifically, what are my motivations? What are my values and learning about one another’s identities, and that creates better team cohesion and effectiveness. And it also increases employee sense of belonging and inclusion in the workplace. And then the last one that we got into in the webinar in these scenarios is, you know, how do you develop a radar screen for religion and religious diversity in the workplace so that companies can be proactively looking for business opportunities for growth for new products, etc? And to kind of be asking consistently, what are we missing if we aren’t thinking about religion in this scenario, because we know it’s such a powerful force in the world. So those are sort of the three ways that we see. Companies have the opportunity to engage religion in their work and the three ways that they can be strengthening their corporate culture as well as their business outcomes.

Jenan Mohajir  24:06

I think the one thing I’ll add to that is, for many, for many communities, and specifically also for many minority religious communities, religion isn’t a part of there isn’t a part of a part of an identity that can be easily removed from who they are as their full selves, right? So I’m a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf. There is no way for me to take religion out of my cultural identity, my ethnic identity, my identity, as a woman, it’s a very integrated part of who I am. And that’s similar for a lot of people where religious identity is really part and parcel of their ethnic, cultural family identity, and it’s not something that can be separated out and be categorized differently than the rest of who they are. So I think that that’s something to think about when we think about DEI spaces is when you invite someone in and they are like myself from India or they are, you know, their families are from India or they come from other spaces that are, you know, not normative for us in terms of they’re not Christian there are you know, it’s not as easy to think about compartmentalizing the religion, parts of their of their identity from the rest of their identity. So it’s really important to think about how all of that comes together.

Ben Rue  25:27

Thank you so much again, Megan and Jenan for coming back and giving us an opportunity to continue this very important conversation. And thank you to our listeners for joining. To learn more about religion in the workplace. Visit Interfaith Youth Corps new corporate website, Ifyc.org forward slash engaging dash religious dash diversity dash at dash work. Epidsodes of the forum podcasts are available at our website, Forum on Workplace inclusion.org forward slash podcast. You can also find our podcasts on Apple podcasts, Spotify, anchor and Stitcher. Thank you again and have a great day.

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