Working Together: Secular and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis in Mixed Workplaces

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Despite the many challenges integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce is essential for the well-being of Israeli society, the labor market, and the ultra-Orthodox community itself

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Israeli society is diverse and multicultural. The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is one of the country’s largest and most unique minority groups, and its rapid demographic growth and increasing presence in various public settings make it one of the most significant population groups in Israel’s shifting social mosaic. One of the main areas in which we are seeing rapid economic and social change due to ultra-Orthodox presence, is that of employment: Over the last decade and a half, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women have entered the Israeli workforce.

This process of integration has been accompanied by a degree of suspicion and hostility toward the ultra-Orthodox community on the part of the general public, stemming from various interconnected reasons: The view that the ultra-Orthodox are responsible for religious coercion in Israel, and that they benefit from disproportionately huge state budgets; the fact that most ultra-Orthodox men do not serve in the military or in some form of national civilian service; the relatively low participation of ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce and their much more modest contribution to the economy and the state as a whole; the ultra-Orthodox preference for social and residential segregation; the autonomous ultra-Orthodox education system that fails to equip most men with basic skills and knowledge and does not prepare them for an evolving labor market; the outright rejection of the state, its institutions, and its symbols by some ultra-Orthodox groups; and more.

This problematic image of the ultra-Orthodox community raises concerns among employers at the prospect of hiring and employing ultra-Orthodox workers. Recent research findings have revealed that a large majority (76%) of employers with no experience of employing ultra-Orthodox workers are concerned that hiring such workers might change the character of their workplaces. There is some justification for this concern, which comes with other feelings of alienation and hostility regarding this population, feelings that have been amplified during the COVID crisis. Yet despite these fears, many employers in economic branches such as insurance, hi-tech, and the service industry have chosen to hire ultra-Orthodox men and women for a range of jobs. How, then, does their employment actually work in practice, given the mutual suspicion that exists? What happens in the inter-cultural encounter in the workplace? Are special adaptations required for ultra-Orthodox workers, and might these adaptations alter the very nature of the workplace?

A new study on this issue offers some answers. By means of in-depth interviews with 28 managers from the general public who employ ultra-Orthodox workers, and based on an opinion survey of 520 non-ultra-Orthodox salaried workers, the study examined attitudes and opinions regarding experiences between the two populations in mixed workplaces in the business sector. Findings indicate that many businesses have developed unique strategies for making such employment possible, including promoting mutual acceptance and social and individual discourse, and implementing various adaptations such as providing kosher kitchen facilities, which facilitate encounters in the workplace. These encounters carry great potential for mitigating social rifts and yielding economic benefits for both sides.

In most cases, the hiring and employment of ultra-Orthodox workers is profitable for employers, and employers often have the sense that t they are performing a worthy service for society. Many businesses see the ultra-Orthodox community as a potential source of high-quality, stable, and loyal employees. At the same time, there remain many barriers to the employment of ultra-Orthodox workers, including the need for employers to invest more heavily in training due to professional gaps, insufficient familiarity with accepted employment norms (such as being on time, meeting deadlines, and not missing work without good reason), along with the tendency of some ultra-Orthodox employees to segregate themselves in the workplace.

Mixed workplaces with employees both from the general public and the ultra-Orthodox public provide an opportunity for direct interaction on a daily basis and for fostering greater familiarity and mutual understanding, producing two important outcomes in the business sector: First, employers become more adept at managing ultra-Orthodox work teams and integrating them into their organizations. Second, and more importantly, the broader impact that extends beyond the boundaries of the organization and into Israeli society at large. Working together strengthens social solidarity, lessens polarization, and reduces the social rift between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Despite the inherent social and cultural differences, and the fact that sometimes encounters in the workplace are forced, may seem artificial, and are only driven by basic economic need, mixed workplaces enable the formation of close, authentic, and accepting social relations based on shared interests and a common denominator. These diverse employment enclaves thus succeed in bridging substantial inter-cultural gaps.

For this process to be optimal, it is important that senior management in business organizations conveys the importance of employing ultra-Orthodox workers to junior management and to all employees, and guides them in the implementation of integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the social fabric of the workplace. Senior management's commitment to the process is essential, but not sufficient. Equally important is an advance understanding of the characteristics of ultra-Orthodox society, so as to bridge cultural gaps- a process that can be led by professional HR organizations and professional mediators from the ultra-Orthodox community who are familiar with the labor market and with employers’ needs. This component is particularly crucial for businesses that have not employed ultra-Orthodox workers in the past, or that need a large number of ultra-Orthodox workers. The government also has a role to play in raising the awareness and understanding of the employment of ultra-Orthodox workers in the business sector, by providing knowledge and tools relating to employment diversity to small and medium-sized employers.

Integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce is an essential task for Israel’s society and economy, as well as for the ultra-Orthodox community itself, which is experiencing continued economic crisis. The relatively low ultra-Orthodox men’s participation in the workforce results in significant losses in income and in domestic product. Promoting cultural inclusion in the workplace is a vital step forward for Israeli society—not just in order to increase economic productivity, but to bolster social solidarity and take the edge off the rifts between the growing ultra-Orthodox minority and the secular-traditional majority. Mixed workplaces are an important and central component in cultivating our ability to meet people who are different from us and to get to know them as people, rather than as members of a segregated, marginalized, and alienated community.

The innovative findings of this study show that, despite many challenges and difficulties presented by mixed workplaces, they offer everyone involved—employers, managers, and employees overall, as well as the ultra-Orthodox employees—the opportunity to get to know the “other side” and to work together toward common goals, both business and societal. The more that employers and managers are properly prepared for the unique challenge of employing ultra-Orthodox workers, the more successful this process will be, for the benefit of the ultra-Orthodox community, the labor market, and Israeli society as a whole.

The article was published in the Times of Israel.