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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

6 Tips for Navigating Your Religious Needs at Work (From People Who've Done It)

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Like most millenials, I consider work benefits and culture just as important as my salary, if not more. I want to know how many vacation days I’m allotted, how my employer treats their employees, and whether my co-workers are friendly. But most crucial of all in my case is how my company will accommodate my religious needs.

Because of my Orthodox Jewish observances, like eating kosher and keeping the Sabbath (when you’re not allowed to work), I’ve had to learn how to navigate my workplaces in ways that suit both me and my employers. Those conversations weren’t always easy, especially if my boss wasn’t familiar with my religious practices.

The thing is, you shouldn’t have to compromise your identity in an environment where you spend most of your days, and many people have successfully worked in various fields with devout religious beliefs.

Here are six tips for navigating religion at work, from employees who’ve been there:

1. Be Upfront About Your Religious Needs

Before you accept a job offer, tell your soon-to-be boss or HR department what your religious needs are and what accommodations you’ll request. Once you start, circle back to these conversations whenever anything else arises.

In my case, I’ve often run through the calendar year with a company in advance to go over the holidays I’d need to take off and which Fridays I’d need to leave early for the Sabbath. (The Jewish Sabbath begins Friday just before sunset—in the winter, that could mean 4 PM!) This also gives me an opportunity to map out for myself how much vacation, sick, or PTO time I’d be using for holidays. And I do the same when taking on new projects at work or on a freelance basis. This year, for example, a publication I was working with asked me to write about Fashion Week. I accepted the assignment but told them ahead of time that I’d need someone to cover the Saturday shows for me.

For someone else, this might entail explaining to their employer that they need a private place with a clean floor to pray or that they need to step out of the office five times a day to pray at a nearby mosque. Others may need access to a private bathroom to wash their hands before prayers.

Try to discuss any tweaks you need to make or job duties that conflict with your religious beliefs with enough notice to figure out an alternate plan. Elena Gormley, who practices Judaism but works at a Christian nonprofit, has found in her experience that it’s best to tell your employer about your needs, in lieu of asking. “My strategy has been not asking permission. For example, instead of, ‘Can I have these days off for the High Holidays?’ I'll say, ‘I will not be coming in to work on these days,’” she says. Your employer should recognize and respect that you are religiously obligated to take off.

2. Decide How Open You Want to Be About Your Faith

You might decide to be quite open about your religion at work. “Being honest about faith has been really important to me,” says writer Fariha Róisín. “A couple of years ago I decided I had to be really open about being Muslim...because I needed to start showing up as my full self. My biggest tip would be: Don't be afraid, or ashamed. Be who you are, without exception.”

On the other hand, you might decide to keep your faith more private. And that’s OK, too! Nausheen Jamal, an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) surgeon, chooses to pray in her car in lieu of doing so in her office. She also tries to use a private restroom to wash her face and hands before prayer so that people don’t look at her questioningly. And when someone from her immediate staff noticed that she didn’t order lunch two days in a row during Ramadan, they assumed she was intermittent fasting and she didn't correct them.

“It's not something I feel comfortable advertising to people,” Jamal says. “Many people have a negative connotation when they hear Muslim or Islam… It's easier for me not to advertise it,” she adds. “I'm able to get away with it in many ways because I don't cover my hair, for example, so I'm not visibly Muslim—although I do dress modestly.”

Decide for yourself what you feel comfortable sharing in your work environment and how that will affect your day-to-day life. If you’re an artist or writer, your identity may be tied to the work you produce. But as a doctor, your religion might not come up in the emergency room. Regardless, feel empowered to set your own boundaries however feels right to you.

3. Be Consistent

With anything, including religion, consistency is key. Making exceptions with your religious beliefs or giving in here and there may feel like the path of least resistance in the moment but it will actually complicate things in the long run.

“Be consistent. It is when you start to waffle on your own obligations and choices that people don't take you seriously,” says Reyna Gentin, an attorney who practices Judaism. Gentin leaves early on Fridays for the Sabbath as well as on Jewish holidays.

“If you have to leave work at a certain time, be firm and consistent about it. You will not help yourself or anyone else by saying ‘just this once’ I will stay late for the meeting or take the phone call,” Gentin says. “If you don’t believe in your own religious commitments, neither will your boss!”

4. Find Your Community

Remember that you’re not the first person who’s had to seek accommodations! Connect with others who’ve navigated religion in the workplace before who can offer you the advice and support you’ll need. For example, when I interned at Harper’s Bazaar, I had a colleague who grew up practicing my religion. I asked her advice on how to navigate the workplace if I needed to leave early on Fridays for the Sabbath or for holidays. She explained to me how I should negotiate the days I’d need to take off and told me what she’s seen others do in the past. If you work for a larger company, you may want to ask your HR department if they can connect you to other employees who are in your situation or otherwise seek employees who practice your (or any) religion and have dealt with similar scenarios.

Connecting with others who share your religion at work can also help you find practical ways to make observing it easier. In my current job at Condé Nast, my friend has a Slack channel for Jewish employees in our building that makes it easy to order kosher food together. Plus, I know that if I need advice when it comes to religion at work, I can turn to the same Slack group.

Seeking out a religious community at work can also help you feel a sense of belonging, allow you to bring your whole self to work more comfortably, and give your co-workers—religious or not—a chance to get to know you better.

5. Come Up With Creative Solutions

Bosses tend to appreciate when their employees come prepared with suggested solutions to questions or problems that arise, and religious accommodations are no exception. If you need to take time off for religious observances, for example, don’t forget to proactively address how you plan to make up work that you’ll be missing. That might mean completing your tasks ahead of time, staying in the office later or coming in earlier, or asking a teammate to cover for you (and promising to repay the favor!).

“Always make sure to have coverage in place, and make yourself available other times that don’t conflict with your religious practice,” says Gentin. You can offer to work on holidays you don’t celebrate, for example, to make up for the work days you’ll be missing for the ones you observe.

Sometimes it’s a matter of bringing up an issue that management may not have anticipated and working with the powers that be to come up with a solution together. “My company provided free lunch Fridays to its employees and I couldn't eat it [because I keep kosher],” says Kylie Lobell, who works for a media company. When Lobell explained her Jewish dietary regulations to HR, they were quick to offer her money to buy an equivalent kosher meal of her choice.

6. Find a Company That's Truly Supportive

Finding a company that supports who you are is critical to your well-being and professional success. If an employer or culture isn’t inclusive, you might decide it’s not somewhere you want to work and that it’s time to look for a new opportunity.

Remember that it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion in any aspect of work, from hiring to firing and everything in between. Similarly, employers are required to provide “reasonable” accommodations for religious beliefs and practices, like allowing an individual to abide by a religious dress or grooming code and offering flexible scheduling, voluntary shift swaps, and other modifications to workplace policies. The law also forbids harassment, including offensive remarks about a person’s religion.

Florence decided to quit her job at a wholesale company after she felt she was being discriminated against. “My manager would dock me a full day’s worth [of pay] for leaving just an hour early on Fridays for the Sabbath,” says Florence (who asked to be identified by her first name only). Her boss would dump extra workloads on her near the Jewish holidays or Sabbath when she needed to take off. “First I complained to my boss and then HR who didn’t help. Once my managers found that I complained, they treated me worse, which led me to quit.” Soon after, she joined another company that accommodated her religious needs and felt much more at ease.

Your experiences don’t need to rise to the level of illegal discrimination to be unpleasant and damaging. There are plenty of grey-area situations an employee might want to get out of. “There are microaggressions. They can build up over time,” says Sarah Chandler, a Jewish experiential educator who became a harassment prevention trainer with an organization called B'Kavod in 2018.

You can research how your company treats their employees but sometimes you won’t know for sure until you’re working there whether your religious beliefs and practices will truly be respected.

If you find yourself in search of a better situation, broaching your needs before you accept your next offer can give you some hints as to what practicing your religion might look like in your new work environment. And once you’ve started, Chandler recommends advocating for religious training seminars and pushing for “equalizer holidays” to prevent one faith from scrutinizing another for getting more days off.

Ultimately, your company and co-workers will benefit, too. Because you’ll do your best work when you feel safe, comfortable, and valued.