Accommodating Ramadan in the American Workplace

by Kemal Hamulic

[Note: this blog has been updated to reflect the current year's dates and times.]

Being mindful and respectful of your employees’ needs in the workplace can ensure a happy workforce, increased employee satisfaction, and better productivity. Sometimes, even just showing an interest in the background of an employee can motivate that individual to try harder. For employers with a diverse workforce, it is especially important to keep up on current events.

One such event is the religious observation of Ramadan. For 2017, May 27 is the first day of fasting that will continue for Muslims worldwide for the next 31 days. It culminates in the holy day of Eid-al-Fitr, celebrating the end of the religious fast.

"Ramadan kareem" is an Arabic greeting meaning "Happy Ramadan," which can be used with your Muslim co-workers or friends.

"Ramadan kareem" is an Arabic greeting meaning "Happy Ramadan," which can be used with your Muslim co-workers or friends.

For American human resource managers with employees who practice Islam, there are two important considerations to ease this month of fasting for them: prayer time and the physical challenges of fasting.

First, you need to know that observant Muslims pray five times a day. The actual prayer times are calculated based on several factors, one of them being geographical location. The times vary and are affected by changes in the hours of sunrise and sunset. For our town of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the dawn prayer on May 27, the first day of fasting, starts around 4:25 am, and the sunset prayer starts around 9:15 pm. At the end of the month, these prayer times shift: 4:20-ish am for the dawn prayer and 9:30-ish pm for the sunset prayer on June 26. (Click here for a prayer timetable.)

Those who fast will not be able to eat or drink ANYTHING between the dawn and sunset prayer times.

Here are six recommendations that will help your employees during these fasting times and beyond:

1. Prayer Let Muslim employees know that there is a quiet room available for them to pray.
2. Stress Try to adjust work schedules and work duties for observant Muslims to help them work without the need to hydrate or eat.
3. Food Offer to make reasonable adjustments for storing food during Ramadan. This is primarily important for those who will be working after the sunset prayer, that is, third-shift employees. Very often, Muslims bring home-made food prepared exclusively for this occasion. This food is halal (similar to kosher) and is taken at certain times. Letting employees go to the break room at a specific time, or having them keep a small food box at their work station are examples of what can be done.
4. Clothing Try to be flexible regarding dress codes; if there are situations or areas where flexibility is not possible (for safety reasons, etc.), make an effort to explain company policy and rationale to your Muslim employees. Then, importantly, be consistent with all other employees and their religious needs.
5. Other Employees Address the issue of fasting with non-Muslim employees to make sure that it is not interpreted as a sign of religious favoritism. In the past, some Americans have interpreted religious accommodations as “preferential treatment” for Muslim employees. 
6. Scheduling Make advance scheduling arrangements to ensure there are enough employees to cover the workload on the last day of fasting. Observant Muslims will try to get a day off on this day.

Understand that different ethnic groups take different approaches and use different standards of Islamic observance. You can compare this to your Christian or Jewish family and friends: some are much more observant and some much less. In the case of Muslims, you may find a devoted Saudi believer who will not drink alcohol, eat pork, or smoke, while you may find among Bosnian Muslims that some do not mind smoking and will be flexible on that rule, while fully observing all others.

In explaining the concept of accommodation to non-Muslim employees, help them remember that a flexible workplace tries to work with everyone’s needs:

  • A nursing mother may need a private space to express milk at break time.
  • A colostomy patient may need the privacy of a single-use restroom to change a stoma bag.
  • Catholic workers may wish to have off on Good Friday.

I should emphasize the value of diversity in this working arrangement. For example, non-Christian employees might well volunteer to work on traditionally Christian religious holidays in exchange for having days off for their own holidays. It is a win-win situation for employers.

If explanations are clear and employees understand that all of us work best when we are respected and accommodated, all are prepared to give their best effort and succeed for the company.

A 1997 refugee to the United States, Kemal Hamulic has been working with minority groups on various levels for over a decade. His encounters range from community outreach work to diplomatic interpreting to international business negotiations. His formal education includes a Bachelor’s degree in international business and a Master’s in finance. Kemal has extensive experience living abroad and speaks fluent English, Bosnian, and German and is proficient in French. He has given seminars and prepared workshops on the topic of diversity for government agencies and private entities.

Here, Kemal talks with Alan during a 2013 interview for "Feel Like You Belong" in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Here, Kemal talks with Alan during a 2013 interview for "Feel Like You Belong" in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.