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Mideast War Pushes Companies to Extend Diversity Programs to Faith Groups

When Nabeela Elsayed was speaking at a corporate conference several years ago and explained that she would miss the group dinner because she was fasting for Ramadan, she recalls, her manager responded: “Just don’t fast.” Ms. Elsayed, an executive coach who was previously chief operating officer for Walmart Canada, said she had heard many such slights when stepping away during the workday to pray.

For years, she told business leaders that their diversity, equity and inclusion programming should teach workers about anti-Muslim hate, antisemitism and other threats to religious groups, but rarely got meaningful responses. In recent weeks — since the start of the Israel-Hamas war — Ms. Elsayed has noticed a surge of interest from them on the issue.

Executives are facing mounting calls from their workers to talk about faith in diversity programs. They’re scrambling to ensure the safety of Jewish and Muslim employees, while also trying to foster a sense of belonging across religious groups. As a result, they’re confronting longstanding challenges in talking about religion as a part of workplace diversity — at a time when corporate commitments to diversity programming more broadly seem on shaky ground.

“In the 16 years I’ve been here, I have not seen before the kind of outreach we’ve received from companies trying to respond to their employees’ needs,” said the Rev. Mark Fowler, the head of Tanenbaum, a nonprofit that focuses on interreligious understanding.

Across the corporate world, investment in diversity, equity and inclusion ballooned after the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and subsequent protests. Openings for D.E.I. positions increased 174 percent between June and August 2020, according to data from Glassdoor, the jobs listing site.

The growth was short-lived. Layoffs and attrition since 2020 have hit D.E.I. roles at higher rates than other roles, according to a study of more than 600 companies by Revelio Labs released this year. Chief diversity officers were the only C-suite positions that experienced hiring declines last year, according to a report from LinkedIn.

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