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Faith at Work … Taboo or Welcome?

Here's what happened when we invited employees to talk about religion at work...

Leaders from the faith community share their thoughts with Accenture NY

This article was originally
published on LinkedIn and can be read here.

Those of you who are regular readers have heard me talk about Accenture’s aspiration to be the most truly human organization in the digital age. As we continue to peel back the layers on what “truly human” means, at the heart is helping our people be successful both professionally and personally. And, to be at our best, we need to be comfortable being our true selves and expressing our feelings at work.

We started our “Building Bridges” journey last year in the midst of racial unrest in the U.S. Our people told us that it’s stressful when they feel they can’t talk openly in the workplace about things that happen in the world or at home that affect them deeply. It makes them feel like they don’t belong and that perhaps their co-workers are unaware or don’t care about things that are important to them.

So, we came together as colleagues to talk about what was on our minds. Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture’s business in North America, and I co-hosted the inaugural webcast with our people to kick off Building Bridges last year.

Building Bridges has gained momentum as our local practices continue to bring people together around issues that are important to them. The purpose is simply to offer a place where people can say what is on their minds, be heard, and learn in a respectful and safe environment. The dialogue we’ve opened up has been incredibly valuable. Our discussions are often filled with emotion, yet the feedback so far has been all positive.

We recently convened a Building Bridges session in New York on the topic of religion. Yes, one of those supposed taboo topics that you’re advised to avoid – along with politics – right?! Well, the bottom line is religion is important to many of our people. And, it’s critical to foster cross-faith and multicultural understanding and respect. At the very least, it helps us understand the religious observances of our colleagues. But what I really see is deeper connections among our people. So, did anyone show up on a Friday in August to talk about religion at work? I’ll pass the pen to Dan Eckstein, leader of Accenture’s NY Metro Interfaith Employee Resource Group (ERG), and let him share this beautiful story.

Dan’s words…

Thanks, Ellyn! As you mentioned, our Interfaith ERG hosted a Building Bridges session on August 11 where over 100 people packed into the NY office training room to talk about faith at work. We decided to anchor this session around the theme of “story telling.” Everyone has a story, but we’re often so busy or distracted at work that we don’t take time to ask or share.

One individual talked about his mother’s religious background. He knew she grew up observant in her faith but never heard much about her past and what it was like growing up. That led him to have misconceptions about that religion. During our session, he met someone from that religion and he said this filled a huge gap in his personal life and helped him learn more about who he is.

Another story was from a manager whose Muslim employee left work each Friday between 12-2pm, never talking about where he was going and leading the client to wonder where the employee was. It was through this session that the manager, who was Jewish, learned about the Muslim prayer on Friday and approached his colleague to talk about his own personal faith, and leaving early for work because of the Sabbath. This transparency and dialogue helped to strengthen their relationship and will help the manager be more confident in discussing this with his client.

We ended our session by asking local faith leaders – Rev. Doyeon Park, Brahmachari Karuna, Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, Mohammed Al-Mathil and Rabbi Bob Kaplan – to reflect on the day and offer messages around hope, transparency, courage and community. Mohammed Al-Mathil encouraged us to ask questions from a place of respect and to do a bit of homework when coming to conversations about religion. Brahmachari Karuna shared a story of his father, a Human Resources leader, who seeks to find points of beauty in other religions, which helps to spark conversations with colleagues to explore commonalities and points of beauty across their different faiths.

To cap off an already great day, the Jewish Employee Resource Group hosted a Sabbath Dinner that evening for people of all faiths (employees and their guests) at a local Kosher steakhouse. You can see some of the group in the picture below. Nearly half who attended had never experienced a traditional Sabbath meal. We said blessings over the bread and wine, sang traditional songs and our Jewish members explained each of the prayers. It was a night of celebration, learning and certainly bridge building. 

Afterward, many shared what a special evening it was. One email I received was from an employee and her guest that said “You made us feel so welcome and never out of place. You can feel the warmth of employees and leadership…it’s like one big family.” Perhaps the comment that sticks with me the most was from a Rabbi of a synagogue in Maryland who was having dinner at the restaurant and observed Accenture’s gathering. He came up to me as he was leaving and shared that he has never seen a company host an event like we did on Friday night. He was impressed with how engaged our employees were — by volunteering to explain the parts of the meal and how open others were to learning about the practices of another religion. It was truly a night to remember. I feel so fortunate to work at Accenture where we have the encouragement and support to organize these “out of box” opportunities.

As an observant Jew, I’ve always been passionate about inclusion and diversity, especially the topic of one’s faith at work. After graduating college, it was a challenge to figure out how I wanted to balance my religion and my work. I found myself trying to compartmentalize my work life from my religious life. But it didn’t feel right. I asked my parents, grandparents and mentors for advice. I’ll never forget the story of my Grandpa when he arrived in NY after the Holocaust and surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was a fur matcher and he told me that almost every Friday in the winter he would leave work early to get home for the Sabbath by sundown. When Monday came around he would go back to work and they would fire him for leaving early. As a survivor, my Grandpa taught me to always be proud of who I am and to stand up for my beliefs.

I ultimately decided to wear my Kippa to work because I wanted to be transparent about who I am, and be consistent both inside and outside the office. I feel it represents my true self and is something that I’m proud of. As a leader, I also hope that I am a role model to others, encouraging authenticity.

I learned about the Interfaith ERG shortly after joining Accenture and found a group of 125 people who were thirsty for engagement and dialogue. The ERG started several years ago as a bible study for a group of Christian employees. Since that time it has grown into an Interfaith group with six different religions represented.

I decided to step up and lead the group. Partnering with my colleague, Elan Kogutt and the leaders of our six other Faith ERGs, we work together as volunteers to try different things with the hope to engage and excite the NY Metro community. We hosted 37 events this past year – a mix of in-person and virtual gatherings and grew to 350 members! We focus on a wide variety of educational topics – from Interfaith Marriage, to LGBTQ and Faith, to discussions led by local faith leaders. We host events to explore our respective religions – through Sabbath meals, Ramadan Iftaar meals, and prayer breakfasts. We plan purely social outings and participate in corporate citizenship activities together. Additionally, we have Interfaith and Faith ERGs across our U.S. offices and collaborate at a national level to share best practices. I’m proud that we’re able to be open about religion and use it as a tool to connect more deeply with each other.

Back to Ellyn…

I was on vacation so I missed this Building Bridges session, but reading the emails and hearing the buzz about it and the Sabbath dinner were extremely heartwarming. It’s a beacon of hope, particularly in light of the recent headlines filled with hate surrounding the Charlottesville tragedy and the horrific events in Barcelona. Many of us find comfort in our faith during these difficult times.

By opening up about religion and having a dialogue about it at work, we take positive steps forward to appreciate our differences, celebrate our commonalities, and ultimately build stronger relationships with each other – as colleagues and human beings. I recognize this is not an easy topic, but let me offer three pieces of advice if you would like to start something similar in your workplace:

    1. Involve experts and faith leaders to help facilitate early discussion
    2. Set ground rules about listening, transparency, respect and trust
    3. Be inclusive

Do you bring religion into your workplace? What are your experiences? If you or your company are interested in partnering with Accenture on this mission, email our group at [email protected], we would love to hear from you. Please also share your thoughts below. You can connect with us at @EllynJShook1 and @DMEckstein

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