Muslim Co-workers During Ramadan: Productivity and Accommodation

With an estimated seven million Muslims in the U.S. and 1.5 billion in the world, it's likely that awareness of Ramadan is heightening in the workplace. Ramadan, which began in North America on Saturday, August 22nd, is a special time of the year for adherent Muslims. It's a time of devotion, reflection and sacrifice through daily fasting and nightly prayer. This change in eating and sleeping routines can create some upheaval in a Muslim's work life. With a few simple accommodations by an employer, your Muslim co-workers and employees can remain highly productive and more engaged.

If you are unfamiliar with Muslim religious practices, I highly recommend the brochure An Employer's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices. This can quickly acquaint HR or co-workers with such practices as prayer, fasting, and Islamic dress code. Becoming acquainted with the basics of Islam will make having a dialogue about Ramadan or other issues easier and more comfortable for everyone. Furthermore, knowing a few key aspects of the faith and practices will tell your employees that you care about them. This is a step in the right direction.

At a previous job I had, the CEO sent out his weekly e-mail to the company with a special note congratulating the Muslim employees on Ramadan. That acknowledgment really made me feel respected and, in the end, more dedicated to my position. Of the 300 employees in the company, there were only a couple of us Muslims, so his message felt sincere. When it comes from the top, inclusive gestures like that help to create a culture that fosters diversity. That type of culture was a critical issue for me, even in the interviewing phase. It is one thing to say your company is inclusive and another to walk the talk. Another example of this can be seen in President Obama's speech congratulating Muslims around the world on Ramadan.

Since Ramadan is a month of complete fasting from before sunrise until sunset - and increased abstention from many other daily activities - a few aspects of this time period are important to know if you work with Muslims. If your Muslim co-workers seem to have low energy, are quieter than usual or do not want to partake in office festivities, this is likely a reflection of lack of sleep, food and water. So don't take it personally. On the flip side, your Muslim co-workers are not likely to be offended if you eat lunch next to them or accidentally invite them to a lunch meeting.

If you have a large number of Muslim co-workers, a small amount of diversity training might be in order. Living in the Seattle area and having hundreds of Muslim friends who work at large companies such as Boeing, Microsoft, Nordstrom, and Starbucks, I've been told by many of them that they were asked by HR to give a short talk about Ramadan during a lunchtime-hour diversity meeting. This non-mandatory forum proved beneficial not only to those attending, but also to the person presenting - a chance to clear the air and open up to questions that co-workers might have felt insecure about asking previously.

In addition to learning about basic Islamic practices, it is important to consider some different ways of accommodating Muslim employees during the month of Ramadan. Since fasting starts very early in the morning, around 4:45 a.m. in the Seattle area, I find myself much more productive in the early morning hours after eating my pre-fasting breakfast meal, called suhoor. For this reason, I come into the office at 6:00 a.m. and close out my day in the early afternoon. I am much more productive in the morning, and by afternoon I'm completely drained. But I've been working an adjusted schedule during Ramadan for the last 10 years, and it has proven very effective for me and my employers - not to mention my East Coast clients and members!

Although religious accommodation can be discussed as a positive engagement, inclusion and productivity issue, there have been Ramadan accommodation stories involving bias as well. It's important to remember that reasonable accommodation for all faiths is a legally required compliance issue. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964 places the following definition and stipulations on reasonable accommodation:

Employers must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his religion. An employer might accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices by allowing: flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers, modification of grooming requirements and other workplace practices, policies and/or procedures.

By following these guidelines, companies and their employees can save on a lot of hassles and expense.

As a last note, because Muslims follow a lunar calendar and not a solar one, the start and stop of Ramadan is dictated by when the new moon is sighted. So don't think your Muslim co-workers/employees are trying to pull a fast one when they ask for time off or a modified schedule but can't give you the exact dates. This is especially true for Eid Al-Fitr, which is the day of celebration after Ramadan is finished. Most Muslims prefer to take this day off to join in the congregational Eid prayer and spend time with their families. Working on Eid is akin to working on Christmas Day or Hanukkah, which most Americans (religious or secular) would not be too happy about.

Another resource: The Mosque in America: A National Portrait.

If you have questions about this blog, my experiences as an American Muslim in corporate America, or accommodation with regard to Muslims, please reach out. I would be happy to assist you!

For more information on religious accommodations or discrimination, see i4cp's Discrimination Knowledge Center.

Does your organization provide accommodations for Muslim employees during the month of Ramadan?