With an estimated 3.45 million Muslims living in the U.S. and 1.8 billion worldwide, it's likely that awareness of Ramadan is heightening in the workplace. Ramadan, which began in North America on Saturday, April 2nd, 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 recommend the guide, An Employer's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices. This can quickly acquaint those interested with such practices as prayer, fasting, and the Islamic dress code. Becoming acquainted with the basics of Islam will make having a workplace dialogue about Ramadan or other issues easier and more comfortable for everyone. Learning a few key aspects of the faith and practices will show 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 email to the company with a special note congratulating the Muslim employees on Ramadan. That acknowledgment 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 the CEO’s 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 Biden’s statement 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 understand 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 during Ramadan, this is likely a reflection of less sleep and fasting. 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 team members, 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 some of them that they have been 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 share about their faith and address questions that their co-workers may have felt unsure of asking previously. Think of this too as an excellent opportunity to engage with Muslim or inter-faith ERGs/BRGs.
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 go into the office at 6 a.m. and close out my day in the early afternoon. 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.
A 2022 i4cp study done in partnership with Fortune found that the top two employee value proposition (EVP) elements employers are focusing on are flexibility in work arrangements and commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging—Ramadan is an excellent time to put both of those EVP elements into practice.
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 expenses.
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 being expected to work on Christmas Day or Hanukkah).
For more on making an inclusive environment for Muslim employees during Ramadan, see the follow-up to this article Ramadan 2.0: Answers to the Questions You’re Afraid to Ask. For more information on religious accommodations and inclusion, see i4cp's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Knowledge Center.
This popular article was originally published by Michaela Corning in 2009 and updated in 2022.