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Understanding Faith Without Fear
When companies talk about wanting their employees to feel safe bringing their “whole selves” to work, it’s important to realize that a person’s whole self may be inextricably linked with their faith.
While people of all religions have confronted prejudice and even demonization throughout history, those who practice the Islamic faith have arguably faced the most misrepresentation and discrimination in modern times. Though it is the second-largest religion in the world (behind Christianity), Islam is frequently misunderstood, particularly in the West. The impression of Muslims as extremists to be feared is, unfortunately, pervasive. And for an organization such as Palo Alto Networks, a global organization committed to inclusiveness for its 9,000+ employees, one important way to help combat such misunderstandings is to offer a safe space in which to discuss concerns, find connections, and build bridges instead of walls. That’s why Salam, the Muslim Employee Network, was established.
It may seem odd that I, a middle-aged, white American man, would be asked to assume the role of executive sponsor for this group. When I was offered the role just a few months ago, I certainly asked whether I was the right person for the job. But the role of executive sponsor — the person who provides executive-level support, advocacy, and guidance to an Employee Network Group (ENG) — means providing a much-needed outside perspective that can be valuable. Part of an ENG’s charter is to address negative stereotypes, so someone in my shoes can play an important role in heading those off. Plus, if cross-cultural understanding is the goal, a great place to start is with an executive sponsor who is open to learning more and can act as an advocate and facilitator of important discussions and activities.
With an active membership of roughly 180 employees, Salam is the only faith-based ENG at Palo Alto Networks. It may surprise you to learn that while our members live around the globe, particularly in the Middle East, a large percentage of them were born and now reside in the U.S., and about 60% of them identify as female. Discussions among members frequently revolve around the Islamaphobia and racism directed at them, from both other Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Many have indicated a desire to break down the mystery of Islam, to shed light on the various differences that exist between them and the extremists they’re often associated with. There seems to be a real sense of fear and confusion about their faith, which often leads to people presuming they are bad people. Education is the only way to move past such misconceptions. It’s appropriate, then, that salam, an Arabic word meaning peace, was selected as the name for the ENG.
Though the pandemic has affected the group’s ability to bring people together for events or discussions, we are increasingly finding ways to connect virtually. Though I’m still learning about my new role as executive sponsor and how I can best serve, I am happy to be someone to bounce ideas off, to raise important questions, and to give structure and consistency to the group from an executive level.
Though I often saw flyers in our company elevators promoting various ENG activities (before the pandemic sent us all home to work), and though I knew Palo Alto Networks was committed to increasing the diversity of its workforce and creating an atmosphere of inclusiveness, I didn’t truly understand the value of ENGs before taking on the role of executive sponsor. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I’ve truly enjoyed getting to know the power of these groups and seeing the influence they can have on the company as a whole. In fact, in the last six months alone, the company has received roughly 1,800 referrals for potential employees from ENGs across the company, which will significantly bolster our diversity efforts.
Overall, serving as executive sponsor for Salam not only provides me with greater understanding of and exposure to other cultures, but it will help me to see my team with new eyes, to think more about how diversity can improve our business. Of course, though Palo Alto Networks is making huge strides toward being a robustly diverse company, it — like many other businesses — has a long way to go. The more voices and perspectives there are in the room, the better our decisions will be. ENGs are a first step in making sure everyone’s voice can be heard.
Research repeatedly shows that ENGs benefit both employees and employers, boosting employee engagement and satisfaction, generating greater opportunities for professional development, increasing employee retention, and improving recruitment efforts. The leaders at Palo Alto Networks understand that ENGs are good for business. If you’re an employer, consider how to make ENGs a part of your community, and continue to be vocal about their value for everyone on your team.
If you’re an employee, I encourage you to seek out an ENG that interests you, whether you’re technically part of that affinity group or not — the learning, connection, and personal growth that often take place are sure to be valuable.
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