Ramadan at Work: Hints and Tips for Colleagues, Bosses, and HR Staff

5/3/19

This year in the U.S., Ramadan begins on the evening of May 5th and will end on June 4th.  About a fifth of the world’s population—some 1.6 billion people—will celebrate the holy month—and the majority will observe 30 days of fasting and religious practices.  

The word ‘Ramadan’ simply refers to the name of a month, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.  This month is considered to be the holiest of the twelve, as it was in Ramadan the Prophet Muhammad is said to have initially received divine revelation.  In short, it is considered the month of the year Muslims dedicate themselves to God.

“Daylight fasting” is generally the primary association with Ramadan, but the month involves more than refraining from food and water.  Eating the first meal at sunset, extra prayers, late nights, and a heightened emphasis on patience and virtue are all part of experiencing the holy month.

The end of Ramadan is celebrated with the Eid al-Fitr—the Festival of Breaking the Fast.  On the first day Muslims go mosque for a special prayer.  This is followed by a three-day holiday in which families and friends visit each other, exchange gifts, and socialize.

All in all, Ramadan does not in every case fit cleanly into many work schedules, presenting an interesting challenge for companies looking to show respect for religious beliefs.  So what should employers consider? 

I took time out to survey a few of the available guides on the topic.  Below are twelve ideas that I think represents the best of them.*
  1. Try to ensure staff that work with Muslim colleagues are aware of Ramadan, what fasting entails, and how this could impact someone.  After all, fasting 14 or 15 hours a day is not easy.

  2. If shift or extended hours working are the norm, look at any changes that can be made to offer those fasting the opportunity to swap shifts or change their working hours in a way that suits all parties.

  3. For those in regular day working roles, consider flexible options for start and finish times.  See if allowances can be made for people to work lunch hours and breaks in return for an earlier finish. 

  4. Asking an observer to attend a lunch meeting demands a lot of them.  Be understanding of those that do not feel comfortable sitting and watching people eat and drink.

  5. If welcoming someone into your office for a meeting who you believe could be fasting, simply ask if they want a drink.  If they decline you can be pretty sure they are fasting and there is no need to keep offering.

  6. If you bring food and drink to your work station, try not to place it right next to someone fasting.  If you normally eat your lunch at your desk, try and show some discretion.  That said, the vast majority of observers won’t mind as its part and parcel of Ramadan in the “west”—ask if they mind.

  7. Try to make allowances for observers to take a break at sunset to break their fast if they happen to still be at work.  This needs to be sufficient to break their fast, pray. and then eat properly.

  8. If you work late or shifts and have a cafeteria, try and arrange for some meals to be saved for people fasting so they are not left without a choice at the end of their day.

  9. Avoid booking meetings for the afternoon where high concentration levels are needed from people.  Try to use the morning when people are still relatively fresh.

  10. Don’t expect people to commit to evening functions.  The evenings are dedicated to eating, prayers, and gatherings within the family and wider community.

  11. Be prepared for people to request between 1 and 5 days holiday at the end of Ramadan to celebrate Eid.  This has the emotional equivalent to Christmas and is the one time of the year families and neighbors get together to share gifts and meals.

  12. If fasting team members are working remotely or on international teams, think about time differences.  Be sensitive to the requirements of evening conference calls.
Two final thoughts:
  • Try and use Ramadan as a platform for greater understanding and improving team dynamics.  Why not throw an “iftar” one evening and allow people to share a part of their lives with colleagues?

  • Don’t assume that every Muslim colleague will want to do exactly the same thing during Ramadan.  Each person will express their faith differently.  The most important thing is to create a culture where it’s OK to talk about these things, and to listen well.
*Credit to the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service in the UK for their guide, Personnel Today for their hints and tips, and most of all to Neil Payne for his “do’s and don’ts” list in HRZONE