This article was written by Neil Payne, founder and managing director of international translation agency Kwintessential.
Ramadan is set to start in the Muslim world on Tuesday 9th July 2013. 1.6 billion people, 23 percent of the world’s population will be greeting the holy month. Of these the majority will be observing 30 days of fasting and religious practices.
Muslims feature much more at work today. We work more frequently with populations in countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia; however at home, in the UK, we also have growing representation of the faith in our workplaces and offices.
This year in the UK, working Muslims will be fasting from around 4am until 9pm everyday; that’s 17 hours of not eating or drinking everyday for 30 days. Although fasting is usually the primary association with Ramadan, the month involves a lot more exertion than refraining from food and water. Eating your first meal at sunset, extra prayers, late nights and a heightened emphasis on patience and virtue are all part of experiencing the holy month.
HR practitioners, line managers and other stakeholders need to be aware of the personal and religious sensitivities of their staff. Understanding their experience and accommodating their particular needs shows good management and helps ensures people perform to the best of the abilities. Implementing policies that accommodate can only lead to nurturing mutual trust and ultimately lead to higher staff retention, better morale, more effective teams and greater productivity. Muslims as a whole have specific religious boundaries; Ramadan is a time when many of these become more acute.
Although consultation is always key to creating policy, there are some best practice guidelines that HR and others can adhere to when wanting to address Ramadan in the workplace. Some suggestions are made in this article however their relevance will really come down to understanding your workforce, whether it has 1,000 or 1 Muslim.
It’s crucial and cannot be stressed enough that these are very general guidelines. Muslims differ from generation to generation, culture to culture, some are more devout than others and interpretations and practices of the faith are numerous. It may also be the case that the individual is Muslim by name only and chooses not to practice their religion. Information covered here will be considered applicable to the mainstream of Muslims but not all.
What actually is Ramadan?
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 initially received divine revelation. In short, it is considered the month of the year you dedicate yourself to God.
The Islamic calendar is calculated according the lunar cycles. Ramadan therefore begins when the new moon is sited. As a result the start and finish times change from year to year, usually getting 10 days earlier every year. At present in the UK Ramadan hits long days during summer, however in 10 or so years Muslims in Britain will be fasting much shorter days during winter.
What do Muslims do in Ramadan?
The basic requirement is for all Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. Fasting means that no food, water, smoking, chewing-gum or anything else can go past the lips. As well as physical things that can break one’s fast there are also actions that are considered impermissible while fasting including the telling of a lie, slander, denouncing someone behind their back, a false oath, greed or covetousness.
The fast is broken at sunset with a meal called iftar. Most Muslims will do so with water and dates which is traditional. After sunset they are then able to drink and eat without limitation.
In addition to fasting, Muslims will also spend most of their evenings in a special prayer called taraweeh which is performed in congregation at a mosque. The prayer can taken anywhere between one to three hours.
Eid ul Fitr
The end of Ramadan is celebrated with the Eid ul Fitr - Festival of Fast-breaking. On the first day Muslims go the 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.
Best practice for Ramadan at work
- Establish when Ramadan is approaching and who this could affect at work. Muslims will not mind if asked about the upcoming month and without having to be direct, one should be able to know whether or not they will be fasting.
- Ensure all staff that work with Muslim colleagues are aware of what fasting entails and how this could impact someone. Fasting 17 hours a day is not easy and colleagues need to appreciate how this can translate into behaviour and working practices.
- If shift work is 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.
- For those in 9-5 roles, consider flexitime 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.
- Asking a Muslim to attend a lunch meeting demands a lot of them. Many may politely agree, as will many decline. Be understanding of those that do not feel comfortable sitting and watching people eat and drink.
- If welcoming someone into your office for a meeting who you believe could be fasting, simply ask on arrival if they want a drink. If they decline you can be pretty sure they are fasting and there is no need for you to keep offering them a tea and biscuits.
- If you bring food and drink out onto the office floor, do not allow it to be placed right next to the desk of someone fasting. If you normally eat your lunch at your desk, try and show some discretion. However, the vast majority of Muslims won’t mind as its part and parcel of Ramadan in the UK.
- Make special allowances for Muslims to take a break at sunset to break their fast if they happen to still be on shift. This needs to be ample time to break their fast, pray and then eat properly.
- If you have a canteen, try and arrange for some meals to be saved for people fasting so they are not left choice less at the end of their day.
- Avoid booking in meetings for the afternoon. If high concentration levels are needed from people, don’t expect this after lunchtime. Use the morning when people are still relatively fresh.
- Do not expect people to commit to evening functions. The evenings are dedicated to eating, prayers and gatherings within the family and wider community.
- You may find some staff booking of up to 2 weeks towards the end of Ramadan. There is a practice whereby men spend the last 10 days living in the mosque to help intensify their acts of worship. Be accommodating in allowing this period off ensuring it does not clash with company guidelines.
- Be prepared for people to take between 1-5 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 whole families and neighbourhoods get together to share presents and good food.
- If fasting team members are working remotely, work out time differences and how their daily routine will impact you in terms of meetings, deadlines, SLAs, etc.
- 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?