This year, Ramadan began the evening of April 12 and will continue until May 12. The lunar month is a time of fasting, abstention, prayer and reflection for most of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, and elements of their observation may be aided with a few simple workplace accommodations, according to participants in a panel hosted April 1 by DEI consulting firm Kanarys.
"We can't be afraid to talk about religion," Mandy Price, CEO and co-founder of Kanarys, told HR Dive. "Opening up and creating that space isn't about making the workplace a religiously hostile place or having people have debates about religion … What we've seen is that [great] organizations create that freedom and let people know that no matter what your background is, you'll be able to practice your religion and celebrate your religious beliefs without any type of hamper on that."
1. Recognize you may not know who on staff is Muslim — and don't make assumptions.
While the largest segment of U.S. Muslims have an Asian background or are African American, a growing number of practitioners are Hispanic or White, according to panelist Muhammad Abdul-Jami, imam at Dallas' Masjid Al-Islam. In addition, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly a quarter of adults who were raised Muslim no longer practice the religion. The takeaway? Don't assume you know who is or is not observant.
"Everyone's practice could look different," said Muna Hussaini, chief of staff to the CTO at Indeed. "Some people may not practice. Some people may not want to outwardly identify themselves as practicing at work." In terms of employment law, Hussaini said, managers and leadership should not be seeking to identify those who are practicing and how, but should rather recognize that different employees may be fasting or worshiping in different ways. "If a request comes in for an accommodation, you shouldn't be questioning that," she said.
2. Understand that even practicing Muslims may approach Ramadan in different ways.
Just as there is great variety in the practitioners of Islam, so there are many diverse ways to observe the month. "Some Muslims go 100% hardcore, some just the minimum requirements and take it easy," said Abdul-Jami. Many members of the faith are not obliged to fast, including children, the elderly, the ill and those who are menstruating, breastfeeding or pregnant. Sunni and Shia Muslims break their fasts at different times and observe different holiday schedules. Just as managers shouldn't question the request for a Ramadan-related accommodation, neither should they be surprised if the types and frequency of requests vary among religious observers.
3. Allow flexibility in meeting times and breaks.
More energy earlier in the day following the pre-sunrise meal followed by a lag in the afternoon is the usual pattern for a fasting Muslim, said Matthew Mengerink, tech executive and practitioner of the faith: "Three o'clock, when that witching hour hits for most people, where you'd have a cup of coffee — that's where you'll see the slump." He recommends checking in with employees or co-workers and seeing if they'd like to move afternoon meetings earlier in the day.
In addition, Mengerink said, Muslims who may not pray regularly throughout the year may increase their prayer times during Ramadan. "In a professional context, that means basically a 5- to 10-minute break," he said. "If we're praying in five minutes, we're rushing our prayer. It really takes about 10 minutes." Ensuring buffers of at least 10 minutes during meetings goes a long way toward making a practicing Muslim's life easier, particularly during Ramadan.
For a global company, Mengerink added, it helps to be cognizant of international employees and how their schedules — and therefore prayer times — may differ. "Be aware that it may be more awkward this month than any other month for your employees to be able to participate in night prayer and make meetings that are late at night," he said.
4. Understand employees may be more exhausted than usual.
In addition to fasts and daily prayers, Ramadan includes optional night prayers, which some employees may be observing, making for greater sleep deprivation. "There's three 10-day periods of time that we mark during Ramadan," Mengerink said. "The first 10 days are relatively easy for most everyone. The second, you hit a cadence and just kind of hit your pace … I know very, very few people who aren't just plain, flat exhausted in the last 10 days." He says encouraging employees to take days off, even suggesting four-day weeks, can be helpful for exhausted, practicing Muslims.
5. Encourage the formation of faith-based employee resource groups.
Price suggested to HR Dive that organizations encourage the formation of interfaith employee resource groups, a type of group that is already somewhat common for aspects of identity like gender and race. "Those groups are able to provide tremendous feedback to companies, so they can really be mindful again of some of the maybe unintentional things that the organization may be doing that is not inclusive to people of different religious backgrounds," she said.
"Some of your Muslim employees may be asking for accommodations and others may not. But it's still great for all of your employees to be seen and feel like they belong," Hussaini agreed during the panel. "If you don't have employee resource groups, please consider starting them."
6. Educate and celebrate with an on-site iftar, educational brown bag presentations and other activities.
Some companies have used Ramadan as an opportunity to foster at-work camaraderie and community by holding informational brown-bag sessions, providing gift bags on the first day of the holiday, or holding on-site iftar (fast-breaking) celebrations. Hussaini participated in a challah bread bake hosted by her company's Jewish affinity group, she said. "There are so many ways to be sharing culture and opening up dialogue," she added, noting that such events can lead to helpful conversations and greater understanding and exchange between colleagues.
7. Create a more open PTO policy.
Finally, companies should consider an open approach to paid time off, or at least to holiday-based PTO, speakers said. "[Kanarys] recommends [organizations have] religious PTO days off and communicate that to your entire workforce so they understand that they will have the freedom and the ability to practice their religion and their work will be accommodating and respectful and understand that everyone's religious days transpire at different times," Price told HR Dive.
"We revert to the state of what is predominant," she said, referencing the commonality of providing for Christian holidays, but not others. "We can't have the workforce set up where ... that time is given off and we're not ensuring that the same kind of inclusion is being extended to people who are practicing different faiths."