When Religions Clash: Ensuring Peace in the Workplace during the Holidays

Photo by __ via Flickr Creative Commons.

by amanda dunyak

Religion can be a touchy subject in the workplace, and is also one that may go unmentioned during the interview process. This lack of discussion may cause problems down the line, especially around the holidays.

Respect and Understanding

Some people feel that disclosing information about your faith and religious preferences during an interview is a cause for discrimination, which, when it comes to the hiring decision, is illegal (based on The Civil Rights Act of 1964) and unfair. Tanesha Jackson of Ann Arbor, Michigan believes that the parents and the nanny should be professional enough to keep religion separate from the working relationship.

While she believes that hiring someone based on religion should not be a factor in the interview process, some families believe that it is important to at least make sure that their caregiver will be able to work in a religious household. “A nanny has to be completely open, accepting, and nonjudgmental of different cultures and religious beliefs. They should not let that be this be the deciding factor in whether or not to accept a position unless the nanny’s own religion forbids her to participate in certain religious activities outside of her own,” she says.

Religious Needs Can Impact Daily Living

Keven Friedman, a father of a Jewish household in New Jersey, believes that respect both ways is key, especially when observing the dietary restrictions of Judaism in the household. “Kosher food and living a kosher lifestyle is going to be an important discussion with a potential nanny or au pair.” This is especially important if you plan on being a live-in domestic worker. Respect and understanding should be present when discussing religious practices with a potential family.

Should Parents Be Able to Screen Candidates Based on Religion?

Nannies are trusted to assist with raising young children and are tasked with supporting their charges physically, emotionally, and mentally. Should their job description cover the fledgling spirituality of children? Reverend John L. Knight, a pastor at the Willimantic Church of the Nazarene in Connecticut gives his own perspective on the hiring process. “I believe I have the right to hire someone who models for my children the values I desire to instill and fortify. In this context, I feel a responsible interview covering a candidate’s spirituality is valid.” Knight, a protestant, says he would feel comfortable hiring a nanny of another religion only if the teachings and practices followed by the nanny did not interfere with what he wanted his children to be taught about spirituality.

Observing Religious Holidays

What about time off around the holidays? Dr. Deborah Gilboa (“Dr. G” of AskDoctorG.com) says that “asking for religious holidays off is an important part of any job negotiation!” She advises nannies to talk to their bosses immediately, especially if they are anticipating a conflict in expectations. Tanesha believes that a caretaker’s religious needs are just as important as those of the family they work for. Sometimes a caregiver may be offered a certain amount of days off per year, which they are free to use for any holidays or sick/personal days. This is the case in the Friedman family, who use a private agency to hire their family’s au pairs. With the agency they use, their au pair is required to work up to 45 hours a week and receives 14 paid vacation days a year that they can use at any time. If you do not present clear expectations to the family during your initial interview or during contract negotiations, many problems can arise when you would like a day of to observe a religious holiday and you are expected to work. Keep this in mind. Even if the potential employers do not bring it up during the interview, it is okay for you to bring it up. They will most likely respect you more for your honesty and it will set the tone for a cohesive working relationship.

Discussing Different Beliefs with Children

And what about sharing your own beliefs? How can you go about helping the children learn about their own religion and traditions? Reverend Knight believes that a nanny can and should promote a positive experience for the children by becoming familiar with the religious climate of the home. He suggests three principles when dealing with the religious atmosphere in the home. First, sharing. Reverend Knight believes it is perfectly okay to share your own religious background with the children provided that your conversation flow from related dialogue. It is important that the parents are open to a cultural exchange of these sorts. The second principle is respect. “A mature religious nanny will respect the beliefs and traditions of the parents.” This leads to the third principle, which is “No recruiting. Attempting to overtly convert the children to your own belief is simply unethical,” Knight says.

Dr. G shares in this belief. She advises nannies to check with their NannyFamily first to “ask the parents if you can share some of your own traditions and beliefs with the children.” Also, ask what you should say if the children have a questions regarding a religious belief different than what their family practices (for example, SantaClaus).While some parents may be open to the exchange, it is always safe to approve how you will approach it first and to be better prepared to handle any conversations or situations that you may be uncomfortable with.

Learning and Growing

Jackson once worked as a nanny for a Hindi family. During her time employed by a family of a different religious background, she educated herself about the culture and religion of the people she worked for. “I feel like we can all learn fromeach other and it’s one of the reasons why I enjoy working for families of different cultures and religious beliefs. I learned so much.” She has been immersed in the family’s culture and religious practices, learning bits and pieces of the language and participating in religious rituals with the family. She even helped her charge prepare a presentation on the Hindi holiday Diwali for school.

Friedman’s au pairs have represented many different faiths, including Atheism and Christianity, but the family has always been open to a cultural exchange with their au pair. He recommends a book titled, “Vivir Como Judio: Historia, Religion, Cultura” (which means “Life as a Jew”) by Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino. The book is written in Spanish and is a great piece of literature that has aided their au pairs in becoming educated about the Jewish faith and lifestyle.

Dr. G recommends using the holidays as a way to find out more about your employer’s religion and traditions and to find out ways for how you can help. She also recommends talking to the children and asking them what they are looking forward to with the approaching holidays and relay that to the parents. The answers can be surprising and insightful.

When it comes to the religious holidays celebrated in the home, if the parents come from two different holiday cultures, Dr. G advises that the nanny learn about both religions with their charges and find the reasons behind the traditions that promote values that the family believes in. She reminds me that there may be other family members outside of the “nuclear” family that may have different faiths as well. You can use that as a “great opportunity to learn about other cultures and to show respect and love for that family member by doing something to share in or honor that holiday.”  

While working in a household with a vast difference in cultural and religious practices can be daunting, there are many things you can do to ease into your position in their home. Being respectful, open, and honest is key. Asking questions is also important to be sure you don’t overstep your bounds. If all goes well, it could be a wonderful and positive learning experience for yourself and your NannyFamily!