By Catherine Pepinster
A summit on faith in the workplace was held at 10 Downing Street today, when employers talked to Rishi Sunak’s advisers about encouraging faith-friendly policies.
Many of these business leaders were at a meeting last night of the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religion and belief, which heard that growing numbers of businesses were embracing faith in the workplace, seeing a person’s religious beliefs as an asset rather than a problem.
Employers ranging from Google to Aviva and the NHS told the meeting that faith was now being seen as much a part of diversity as race and gender, and that people’s beliefs were not only more respected but also seen as helpful in the workplace.
Geoff Sweeney, of the Multi-Faith Centre at Derby University, said businesses were now encouraged to embrace faith, and that this led to a happier and therefore more productive workforce.
Growing numbers of organisations now have employee faith and resource groups and try to accommodate people’s faith needs, including prayer spaces, and time off for religious festivals not on the national calendar.
Among those attending the session on Monday and the No 10 summit was Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, which helps businesses to chart their progress on being faith-friendly in the workplace.
The foundation runs the Corporate Religious Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Index. Top of its UK chart is Ovo Energy, which has set up an interfaith employee resource group to foster a diverse, religiously inclusive workplace aligned with the company’s aims. The group has helped to develop a programme of safety headgear for those who wear religious dress such as turbans. According to Mr Grim, “faith is the next big thing in diversity”.
Among the employers now taking faith much more seriously is the NHS. Its director of culture transformation, Ronke Akerele, told the parliamentary group that there had been a step-change in the NHS after the pandemic, when people had been more vulnerable and faith had become more important to its followers. Dr Akerele later told the Religion Media Centre: “We have seen people talk more about their faith, and it is now seen as part of diversity.”
In the past, she said, faith was something only for chaplains in the NHS and other staff were discouraged from sharing beliefs. “Now, people would try to meet the faith of a member of staff with a patient, if it helps, and they are having to wait to see a chaplain.”
At Google, faith is now seen as a source of ideas and values, and different perspectives are seen as helpful in tackling problems. Alfred Biehler, head of innovation in the UK at Google, told the meeting that it was encouraging more people to state their beliefs.
The parliamentary meeting heard from companies who were growing increasingly open to importance of faith in people’s lives. Salesforce, a software company, now encourages its new buildings to be given a religious blessing, and at Rolls-Royce in Derby there are quiet spaces allocated for prayers. According to Brad McLaughlin, who looks after faith networks at the insurance company Aviva, being open about people’s faith “helps people to learn to disagree well”.
Baroness Verma, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religion and belief, praised the employers for their work, at a time when young people especially were worried about defending their own faith and offending members of others. “We need to be comfortable with ours and we need that conversation with others,” she said.