Michaela Profile 2

Ramadan 2.0: Answers to the Questions You're Afraid to Ask

It's that time of (the lunar) year again. The holy month of Ramadan began recently and i4cp has seen an uptick in the number of companies accessing our previously published articles on productivity and accommodation for Muslim employees. I love that HR practitioners and first-line managers are turning to i4cp as a resource on this important diversity issue.

I'm always happy to answer my colleagues' questions about Ramadan as well as serve as a resource regarding the role of faith in the workplace. The last time I wrote on this topic was in 2009; a few things have changed since then. Following are four key points I'd like to share with you; hopefully they will provide answers to the questions you may have been hesitant to ask of Muslim co-workers.

First, because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the month of Ramadan changes by about 11 days each year. In other words, our days for fasting have grown longer since 2009. At the i4cp headquarters in Seattle, we are fasting from about 3 a.m. until just after 9 p.m.--or about 19 hours per day of no water and no food. So why does this matter in the context of diversity and inclusion?

It's more than just accommodation or EEOC

Understanding how you can help your Muslim employees be as productive as possible during this month--by allowing flexible schedules, for example--is extremely important. Also, consideration should be taken into account that Muslim employees might not be as productive during this period as they ordinarily are. If we compare Ramadan to the timeframe between Thanksgiving and Christmas--or even college basketball season--we know that employees will probably not be consistently working at 100% productivity; it's something everyone accepts. Fewer contracts are signed between Thanksgiving and Christmas, fewer meetings take place and people are harder to get a hold of. Same goes for the summer vacation season. Helping Muslim employees to get a proper night's sleep by allowing for flexibility and adjusting their schedules a bit during Ramadan is very helpful.

I know I appreciate that flexibility.

Let's take this conversation to the next level

Most people have graduated from the basics:
  • Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan.
  • Muslims pray five times a day (and will do a couple of those prayers in the office most likely).
  • Muslims don't eat pork or drink alcohol.

Muslims in the U.S. are a growing segment of the population by both immigration and conversion. In fact, the fastest-growing segment of converts in the U.S. is Hispanic and Latino Muslims, for example. Islam is much more mainstream in the U.S. now; in fact, DKNY just launched its first ever Ramadan Collection.

In order to collect some anecdotal data on what Muslims experience in U.S. workplaces and what some of our collective concerns are, I asked my Muslim American Facebook friends (who are converts, immigrants, and second-generation Muslims): What are some of your challenges and how can HR practitioners and first-line managers help create an environment of trust and inclusion? Here they are:

1) Don't be the fasting police!

Do you sometimes wonder why your Muslim co-worker isn't fasting? The number one concern that was raised to me was around female "issues." This is where the conversation gets personal. There are two scenarios in which Muslim women do not fast: during menses or post-partum bleeding. Many women recounted embarrassing stories of male co-workers blurting, "Wait, I thought you were fasting?!" No one wants to discuss menstruation at work, so we try to be as discreet as possible--it doesn't always pan out though. Also, some people cannot fast due to medical issues such as diabetes, pregnancy, or breastfeeding; if a person is chronically ill, they pay a certain amount to charity in lieu of fasting. We also don't fast when we travel, so business trips are another valid reason. These scenarios are more optional and up to our own discretion, but whatever fasts we miss must be made up after Ramadan.

2) Have a heart

From the outside looking in, it might sound difficult and burdensome, but most Muslims really enjoy Ramadan and are sad (literally) when it is over. As I write this, I cannot believe how quickly the last few days have passed. I've been Muslim 15 years and there are a lot of nostalgic family traditions associated with Ramadan: eating certain foods, praying together at home, feeding the poor, et cetera. We grow in our spirituality and in our family relations. Why do I mention this? Because condescending jokes in the office about Ramadan are never funny. It warms my heart that nearly every year my co-workers send me Happy Ramadan e-cards.

3) To each their own

Just like any other faith community, there are varying degrees of practice among those who call themselves Muslim. Some Muslims only practice the religion during the month of Ramadan and others stick to Islam's principles throughout the year. Employers should simply make an effort to treat each employee's individual needs. Just because one person works a modified schedule to allow more time for evening mosque doesn't mean that other Muslim employees want the same. Furthermore, fasting is harder for some than others. I have friends that look super energetic even in the final hour before breaking fast at night, and others who are super grouchy.

4) Keep it all in perspective

I touched on this earlier, but even with a modified schedule and an inclusive environment, it's still likely that your Muslim employees will not be as productive during Ramadan--at least not until Ramadan moves from summer into spring and then back to winter. Just as my co-workers take a lot of vacation during the holidays and produce less--hosting parties and planning family events during work--so will your Muslim employees during Ramadan. As U.S.-based organizations give time off for companywide holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, many immigrant Muslims are accustomed to the same during Ramadan in their native countries. In most Muslim countries, employees work half-days the entire month and are paid as if they worked full-time. It's a give and take. So, while my co-workers are covering me a little during Ramadan, they can always count on me during holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, and Easter to be in the office.

In an effort to create more loyal employees and focus on long term gains, the more we all know about Muslims and those of all faiths in the workplace, the better we can foster an inclusive workplace for others. Let's keep the conversation going.

i4cp is dedicated to diversity and inclusion in the workplace; check out the Chief Diversity Officer Board for unprecedented access to senior D&I executives, industry thought leaders, and discussions.