There are many actions workplaces can take to be inclusive and show respect for Muslim employees and co-workers
by Bethan Rees
To mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast between dawn and sunset, we are looking at how workplaces can be more supportive of the Muslim community. According to the World Population Review, "there are approximately 1.9 billion Muslims globally, making Islam the second-largest religion in the world behind Christianity". Despite this, some members of the community may experience barriers to integrating successfully in the workplace, particularly in non-Muslim dominant workforces in the West.
Speaking to The Review, Samina Akram, managing partner of Samak Ethical Finance, a London-based independent, international Islamic and ethical finance consultancy, says when she first started working in the City that she felt "most employers did have a lack of understanding and awareness" of how to support Muslim people in the workplace.
She adds, however, that her "managers were always willing to learn". She recounts an incident when she was working at Barclays – she was praying in an empty room and was interrupted when her manager walked in accidentally with a colleague. She explained that she was praying, to which he replied that he would ensure a ‘do not disturb’ sign is placed outside the room in future, for whenever she wants to use it to pray.
In a Forbes article, Rebekah Bastian writes of misunderstanding stemming from "vastly uninformed perceptions of Islam". Bastian quotes Mohammad Sarhan, senior director of product development at US real estate company Zillow. Sarhan says: "I find that people make assumptions about what it is we believe. At the end of the day, we believe the human being is sacred, and regardless of practices that clash with Islam, we still have a very high level of respect and love for our co-workers. Unfortunately, we often do not see the same level of respect and love in return."
Bastian also quotes Alaa Badr, then vice president at VMware, a cloud computing and virtualisation technology company, now vice president at computer technology firm Oracle, and a Muslim community leader. Badr highlights that the Islam faith is for anyone, from anywhere. "We can’t be identified through nationality or race and we bring many varied cultures to the organisations where we work," he says.
Samina says that she has found employers' willingness to learn about Islam has improved greatly. "This can be seen with the recent Ramadan ‘fasting challenge’ that some companies have participated in, and they encouraged their employees to fast and raise money for charity," she says. This can help build respect and empathy among the workforce for those employees who fast during the month of Ramadan. "When you have senior members of firms reaching out in such a manner it can only be a good thing for integration and positive change," says Samina.
Samina says a few of her friends who wear a hijab avoid working in certain sectors, as they feel their "dress code will get in the way of reaching senior positions".
In the Forbes article, Bastian says there could be misunderstandings surrounding the reasons for wearing the hijab, and quotes Badr, who wants people to "understand that it isn’t being forced on her; that it is her choice and is not worn to put her down, but rather as a sense of modesty."
How to be more inclusive
Understanding and respecting gender boundaries is one way to be more inclusive, as Islam has some guidelines for interactions between men and women, says Bastian, and it is important that colleagues, managers and senior staff are aware of these. She quotes Glenn Block, senior director at DocuSign, an electronic signature firm, who says that there "are differing opinions on what is permissible, and Muslims will have different comfort zones". He adds that "some Muslim men and women may keep their gaze down, avoid shaking hands or refrain from mingling with a member of the opposite sex. Non-Muslims should know that this is not meant to offend or be disrespectful."
The Muslim Council of Britain, a national representative Muslim umbrella body with more than 500 affiliated organisations, published a report in March 2021 titled Defining Islamophobia, which gives some Islam faith-friendly workplace adaptations.
It echoes Block's point and advises that people should "be aware of cultural differences around handshaking and direct eye contact". For example, placing your hand on your heart, rather than handshaking between genders, is sometimes used and is "seen as a highly respectful act".
Having a policy on religious observance could have a positive impact on Muslim (and other faith) employees. In an article for Personnel Today, Ashok Kanani says "managers should familiarise themselves with their employer's policy on religious observance during working hours", as some Muslims will pray up to five times a day. An absence of such a policy could lead to accusations of religious discrimination, adds Kanani.
A policy could also tie in with inclusive scheduling, which takes into account the needs of Muslim employees. Bastian quotes Laila Almounaier, then a director at travel company Expedia, now senior director of global product management, mobile app and engagement at the company, in the Forbes article. Almounaier says that to help them feel included and empowered in the workplace, Muslim employees could be provided with a private prayer area with a private restroom or sink "to perform wudu (washing performed before prayer)". Almounaier adds that the prayer room could double up as a meditation room for others.
Socialising at work can sometimes revolve around drinking, or being in an establishment that serves alcohol. Samina says that "some Muslims feel as they don't drink, this means they can't network or socialise with their colleagues, which means they may not advance in their careers as fast".
In the Forbes article, Bastian says that "happy hours that are scheduled at a bar or revolve around alcohol can be less inclusive as well". Almounaier is quoted as saying these events "can pose a dilemma for Muslims" who want "to be included and build relationships", yet do not feel "comfortable participating or being in that environment". Creating events that are outside of a bar/pub environment, and that involve activities other than drinking, can help make this more inclusive.
With careful consideration and an open mind to change, workplaces can take important steps to ensure their Muslim employees feel respected and included.