Prayer rooms are just a start as companies move to support their workers’ spiritual needs

Toronto Star
May 5, 2009

Stuart Laidlaw
Faith and Ethics reporter

It usually begins with a prayer room, but rarely stops there.

“A group of Muslims will come forward and say, `We need a place to pray,'” says Nadir Shirazi, a consultant helping companies find ways to accommodate the various faith needs of their staff.

“And that opens to door to a discussion about multi-faith space in the workplace.”

Tonight, Shirazi leads a discussion at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre to help companies find ways to accommodate religious practices on the job.

The 5:30 p.m. session, at 569 Spadina Ave., will include contributions from companies that have been through the process. There is no charge to attend.

“Savvy employers are recognizing that this is what motivates employees,” says Shirazi, president of Multifacet Diversity Solutions.

Shirazi, who has worked with big and small companies, says the requirement that Muslims pray each day is the usual catalyst for getting a discussion going about employees expressing their faith at work.

Employers look for a private place big enough to accommodate Muslim employees, and set that space aside. It sounds simple, Shirazi says, but the impact can often be profound.

“The prayer room is not the end of the process, it’s the beginning.”

Shirazi says Canadians traditionally don’t talk about their faith in public, especially at on the job.

But the opening of a prayer room will motivate employees of other faiths to begin talking about how their religious beliefs play out in their everyday lives and how the workplace can be more accommodating to them, as well.

The needs and solutions change from workplace to office to job site, he says. Sometimes, it can mean allowing religious symbols, or dress, and co-ordination of days off to accommodate different religious holidays. As well, seminars – online or at work – can be held to explain the traditions of co-workers’ faiths.

Helping employees express their faith can be a daunting task to Canadian employers more used to treating religion as a private matter, but Shirazi says the effort can boost staff morale.

“If you engage them, they’ll work harder for you,” Shirazi says.

Immigration has brought many different religions into the Canadian workplace.

Besides Muslim employees, Shirazi points to waves of immigration from Eastern Europe, which boosts the profile of the Orthodox celebrations of Christmas and Easter; Hindus from India; Buddhists from China and Tibet; and Korean immigrants who often bring with them a unique form of Christianity.

“It’s not going away. It’s increasing, in fact,” he says.

Accommodating religion in the workplace is a must for any business operating internationally, Shirazi says, since it shows foreign contacts that the company respects different cultures.

“The better you are at accommodating faith here in your own backyard, the better you are going to do abroad,” he says, pointing out that many countries do not have Canada’s tradition of treating faith as a private matter.

Besides, he says, accommodating different faiths is a key part of Canadian multiculturalism.

“It can never be true multiculturalism if it excludes religion and spirituality.

Reference: Toronto Star