This year, Ramadan falls on May 15th, marking the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Observed by Muslims worldwide, Ramadan requires people to fast during the hours of daylight – and prohibits any food consumption when the sun is out.
It’s a practice that allows Muslims to become closer to God, taking part in extra worship and prayers. However, observing Ramadan in the workplace can throw up some issues in regards to lost productivity, breaks and exhaustion.
So, how can employers ensure they respect Muslim workers whilst still maintaining a productive business?
“When I was running a plant, as an HR leader, we had around 500 employees working on a 24-hour manufacturing operation,” explained Rahim Kabani, head of HR at Aga Khan Development Network.
“Around 25% of our employees were Muslim, meaning we had to navigate how best to keep up productivity levels during Ramadan.”
Kabani told us that during the day, between Monday and Friday, the employees worked eight-hour shifts, splitting the day in three groups. On Friday nights, they split the day into two 12-hour shifts – from 7pm to 7am in the morning.
“During Ramadan, we found the morning and afternoon shift workers experienced the most issues, rather than the night workers who were allowed to eat after nightfall,” he continued. “The other employees had to wait until, on average 9pm, dependent on the moon’s cycle before they could eat anything and break their fast.”
The way Rahim addressed this issue was to negotiate with plant management for the workers breaks that are more frequent. In an eight-hour shift, employees would be given around an hour and a half of rest time, split across their day. They also included different fixtures of breaks for people who were fasting.
“One concern arose when we had a weekend shift, during which employees wanted to go and participate in the congressional prayers to mark the end of Ramadan, Eid,” Kabani told us. “Staff working on that shift didn’t want to miss the celebrations, the festivals and the religious prayers that were on offer. Muslim countries have three or four days’ time off after Ramadan.
“Prayers for Eid start in the morning, so we asked employees working the shifts after the morning workers to come in slightly earlier, which allowed the colleagues to go and pray before 11am.”
The employees were initially concerned about the changes, which is why it’s so important to have a culture of openness and transparency, Rahim told us.
“I approached employees to quell their fears and speak to them on a face-to-face level. One of the main concerns employees had was that you’re not actually allowed to perform your daily routines when fasting, according to our faith – which presented a problem.
“Of course, I understand this, but I explained to employees that this wasn’t feasible for the business to run as it should. Instead, we looked at how we can best accommodate the workers and allow the company to still run as normal. Because I am a Muslim too, it was definitely easier talking to the employees and helping them understand, rather than someone who isn’t. You probably wouldn’t get the same understanding there.”
“I also found a few mosques that we nearby, enquired about prayer times, and passed on the information to my employees. This way, employees could still go to prayers for Eid, but didn’t have to travel too far and take too much time off work.”
From a legal perspective, it’s essential that HR leaders fully comprehend what’s expected of them. Any bias or discrimination towards an employee who practices Ramadan could have serious legal and moral repercussions.
“To put this into context, it is important to understand that the duty to accommodate is not a standalone duty,” explained Stuart Rudner, employment lawyer at Rudner Law.
“It’s driven by our human rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of specific grounds. We all know that an employer cannot refuse to hire someone because they are disabled.
“However, if they have a situation where a disabled employee isn't able to work, such as where the work space is on the second floor and there is no elevator or ramp, then that would have the same effect of preventing them from working. That would be indirect discrimination and equally a contravention of human rights legislation.
“When we work with our clients, we advise them to implement a standard procedure for responding to any request for accommodation, whether disability, religion, or otherwise.
“The key is never to dismiss a request for accommodation out of hand, but to engage in a genuine assessment of the need, and the possibility of providing accommodation. this should be clearly documented in case the response is ever questioned.”
Speaking of religious accommodation requests, how can HR help accommodate all faiths in the workplace? Find out more here.
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