The recent controversy over the banning of the so-called ‘burkini’ on French beaches raises a number of challenging issues. While they are issues that affect society as a whole, it is important to remember our workplaces function as mini communities and, as such, what influences the wider community is just as relevant to our places of employment.
Should people be able to wear what they like in a free society? Even though France (and our workplaces) is a mostly secular country, should people’s adherence to religious obligations be respected as part of a democratic system?
Alternatively, when choosing to live in a secular society, do people of faith have an obligation to remember that some people find such overt displays of religious adherence unsettling or oppressive?
Wherever you sit on the Burkini issue, it is a very interesting example of the challenges inherent in shaping a diverse and tolerant society.
Debates about the virtues of diversity are often polarizing. On one side – as we’ve seen with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, for example – there is an abundance of fear-mongering rhetoric about the damage ‘outsiders’ can wreak in our communities. Consequently, there is a demand for these ‘outsiders’ to adapt to ‘our’ ways of life or find the welcome mat taken out from underneath them.
On the other side of the argument is the case for diversity. There is a wealth of reasons why rejecting bigotry in favour of inclusion, tolerance and openness makes our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools and our communities better places to be. And, whether you realize it or not, the modern-day workplace is a shining example and a powerful argument in favor of diversity and its benefits for everyone.
While we’ve started this post by using the burkini as an example, diversity is so much more complex than what people are – or are not – allowed to wear on the beach. And, it is also not necessarily restricted to just hiring a person of colour, a latino or latina, a person with mobility or vision or hearing challenges; someone from Asia or the subcontinent, a practicing Muslim or an observant Jew, or someone who identifies as LBGTI, or many other examples, and then patting yourself on the back and thinking no one can accuse you of not doing your bit for diversity.
Diversity is much, much more than that.
Diversity in the workplace is about recognizing, understanding and, perhaps most importantly, welcoming difference into your organization. It is learning about the challenges people from other cultural, political or ethnic backgrounds have faced to become a part of your workplace community, and the on-going trials they might continue to face away from the workplace in their everyday lives.
It is about the different opinions others might have that may not conform to your world-view but, ultimately, cause you to re-evaluate long-held opinions.
Diversity is not about making you feel that your spirituality, your experiences and the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome in your life are not valid or equally as important. It is about acknowledging we are all part of a wider world beyond our own little patch of dirt; a community brimming with different experiences of life, and how these experiences – when shared with others – enrich us in ways we might never experience, learn from and enjoy if we close ourselves (and our organizations) off to difference.
Be a workplace that truly values diversity. Accept and celebrate the differences inherent in your employees. Use the knowledge of others and apply it to your organization. Include everyone in the journey to success and watch them flourish. Marvel at their job satisfaction, enjoy their loyalty and reap the spoils of their productivity. Hold special cultural days where everyone in the workplace – no matter what background – cooks food, tells stories, plays music and shares their unique culture with their work colleagues.
Ban office bigotry, not the burkini. Bring everyone together as a workplace community of one.