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The power of religious diversity in the workplace

While corporate America has embraced diversity for decades, many are only now seeking to build religiously inclusive environments

Illustration by Alex Cochran

As a young boy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tomas Flier grew up “among Catholic priests, Tibetan lamas and meditation teachers,” he said, “visiting ashrams and synagogues.”

His grandparents were Jews from Eastern Europe who had fled to Argentina prior to the war, narrowly escaping the Holocaust. His parents, he said, were spiritual seekers who taught him that, “All religions are just different avenues to get to the same place. (They are) different perspectives from one truth.”

Though he grew up in an atmosphere of openness and acceptance — with a deep understanding of religion that was rooted in love — his school environment was a different story.

There, he faced anti-Semitism in the form of swastikas and slurs. These encounters “all made the point that I was different, that I was less,” he said this week as he spoke at the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation’s second annual Faith@Work Conference, which was co-sponsored by the Brigham Young University Marriott School of Business, among other organizations.

Tomas Flier is Google’s global diversity and inclusion lead.
Tomas Flier is Google’s global diversity and inclusion lead.
Courtesy of Tomas Flier

Reflecting on the bullying, Flier continued, “I felt deeply harmed. … The Holocaust was something hurtful and very present in my family where only some of them were lucky enough to escape their hometowns.”

Above all, he felt “othered.”

“I didn’t belong. And like many others I wanted more than anything to belong to the group of people that I spent most of my time with,” Flier said, noting that his Judaism became something he hid. He expressed that core part of his identity “only in private.”

As difficult as these experiences were, ultimately, they gave Flier his life’s purpose.

Today, as Google’s global diversity and inclusion lead, Flier wants to make sure that Google employees aren’t tucking away crucial parts of themselves like he did as a child. He strives to help Google create an equitable and inclusive workplace.

“Our ultimate goal,” he explained, “is to create a culture of belonging where everyone feels seen, supported, connected and proud to work at Google.”

The company seems to be doing something right: Google is a top-ranked Fortune 100 company on the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation’s annual Religious Equity Diversity and Inclusion Index.

As businesses learn that giving employees space to express their religion and other belief systems can boost the bottom line, corporate America is embracing religious diversity and inclusion.

While companies have been concerned with diversity for decades, “religion is the next big thing in diversity,” according to Brian Grim, president and founder of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation.

Grim was quick to add that the term “religious diversity” doesn’t just apply to people of faith. It includes atheists, agnostics and humanists as well.

Proponents like Flier and Grim argue that not only is religious diversity and inclusion in the workplace morally and legally correct, it boosts productivity for businesses.

“From a business perspective, we know that when people feel more included they will have better chances to thrive and to stay,” Flier said.

And this has implications for the economy.

Research shows there is a positive association between a country’s religious diversity and its productivity, economic competitiveness and rates of entrepreneurship.

“When you look at the ... factors involved with economic growth, one of the only that maintained predictive capabilities was religious freedom,” Grim told the Deseret News, adding that while that doesn’t mean that religious freedom causes growth, it is definitely related to a country’s economic health.

Similarly, YingFei Héliot, a senior lecturer of organizational behavior in England’s University of Surrey, said the quality of individuals’ working lives depends on how comfortable they feel at work.

“Economy depends on individuals’ contributions,” she said.

Not only is religious diversity a boon to the workplace, it also impacts how businesses interface with those outside the office, including clients, partners and others in their field. The more diverse the workforce, the better equipped it is to deal with a wider public.

Naomi Kraus is a senior content strategist at Google and the co-founder and global co-chair of the company’s Inter Belief Network. Among the examples she offered of changes the corporation has made to better accommodate employees from a range of backgrounds, she mentioned “inclusive scheduling.” Prior to this, she said, Google had been unknowingly scheduling major events on religious holidays, including a conference on the eve of Passover — precluding the participation of the Israeli high tech industry, a powerhouse in the tech world.

Ultimately, religious diversity isn’t just about tolerating other belief systems, it’s about encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to their work, experts said.

“To be the best that you can, you really need to bring yourself to the office and all of your experience and all of your culture, all your history. And once we have a diverse team of people coming with different backgrounds it enables the whole team to be strong,” said Amichai Ron, senior vice president and general manager at Texas Instruments.