Muslims Say They Welcome Simple Accommodating Gestures

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Aug 4, 2010
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Even before Saad Ahmed moved from Los Angeles to join the staff of Viget Labs, a Northern Virginia-based web development firm, his hiring manager had located a nearby mosque that offered three Friday prayer services so Ahmed could practice his faith without missing out on the company’s Friday meetings and employee luncheons.

He appreciated this gesture.

“Instead of having to initiate the conversation about my prayer schedule and needs, the hiring manager took the initiative, did some research and provided options before it even became an issue,” he told SHRM Online.

Moreover, Ahmed—who must work closely with new and prospective clients to craft online marketing solutions— was assured that he would not have to work with companies that sell or promote alcoholic beverages or adult content or products.

But how did the manager know what he needed?

According to Ahmed, the manager noted during the interview process that Ahmed was co-founder of a company called the Muslim Ad Network and had said he couldn’t attend a Friday afternoon job interview. Those clues, along with her awareness of Muslim practices, led her to conclude that Ahmed was a practicing Muslim.

Although the manager’s assumption was correct in the case of Ahmed, employers should ask, rather than assume, in most cases.

“Muslims—like the adherents of any religious faith—have members who are observant and members who are not,” said Robin Shea, partner with national labor and employment law firm Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP. Thus an employer should not accommodate, or refuse to accommodate, one Muslim employee based on the behavior and needs of another.

Ramadan Considerations

Employers seeking to create a positive workplace experience for all employees should pay special attention to the needs of Muslims during the 30-day period of Ramadan, a time of fasting and reflection similar in intent to Lent, a 40-day period of preparation observed by some Christians.

Observant Muslims abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset for each day of Ramadan.

“This is a physically-tasking undertaking, especially during the summer months when there are long days,” says Todd Gallinger, an attorney and founder of Gallinger Law in Irvine, Calif., who converted to Islam in 2000. “While fasting, Muslim employees may be unable to perform physical tasks or those requiring intense concentration [at] the end of the day.”

The exact dates of Ramadan shift from year to year, based on the observation of the new moon.

However, this does not mean every employee will observe the holiday during the same time period, said Taneeza Islam, Esq., civil rights director for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN), a civil rights organization.

“Today, communities interpret this tradition in a variety of different ways,” she said. “Many wait to see what Saudi Arabia announces, many wait to see what their continent announces.”

Ramadan “should not be a major problem for employers to accommodate,” Shea told SHRM Online, “any more than it is a problem for an employer to accommodate a Jewish employee who observes Kosher requirements, or a Catholic employee who refrains from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.”

At a minimum, she said that workplaces with large Muslim populations should avoid scheduling events involving food and drink during Ramadan.

“There is a need for employers to wholly understand the needs that Muslim employees have during the holiest month of our calendar year,” Islam told SHRM Online. “Muslims will be rising before dawn, at about 4 a.m., to eat and drink, and cannot do so again until sunset, at approximately 8:30 p.m.,” she explained. “This is almost 16.5 hours of fasting for a 29-30 day period.”

“American Muslims unite around the fact that it is harder for us to keep up with all aspects of our faith than our brothers and sisters in Muslim-majority countries,” Gallinger told SHRM Online. “There, during Ramadan, most things shut down during the day, and people [often] work shorter days. For us, we have all the regular stresses of life, with the hardship of fasting, and also try to attend prayers at night—which sometimes go all night.”

Those who are at work when it’s time to break their fast will need time to have a small snack, such as milk and dates, followed by time to wash, pray and eat dinner. “This entire process can take nearly 30 minutes to accomplish, and for a manufacturing plant with 300-400 employees engaging in these religiously mandated rituals at the same time, it could take longer,” Islam acknowledged. “Therefore this could be difficult for employers.”

Year-Round Prayers

Beyond the annual rigors of Ramadan, Muslims “are supposed to pray five times daily,” an act which can be “a bit more obvious and socially awkward in the workplace,” according to Gallinger, because it “is a physical process involving repetitions of prostration.”

“In an office setting, accommodating the prayer needs of a Muslim employee should not be a problem at all, as long as the Muslim employee is willing to schedule the prayers in a manner that does not unduly disrupt work flow or the workplace,” said Shea. “A quiet place for prayer is really all that is needed, and the time required is about the equivalent of that needed for a typical smoke break.”

Prayer breaks can be a bit more of a challenge in other environments, however.

“In a manufacturing environment, the Muslim employee may need to be more flexible, in the event that a break may require a co-worker to run machinery while the Muslim employee is on prayer break,” Shea said. “It would be lawful for the employer to require the Muslim employee to have a replacement worker on hand before leaving for prayers, so that productivity is not interrupted.”

Ahmed said some managers are more comfortable accommodating Muslim prayer schedules than others.

“My managers at WebVisible, Inc. in Irvine, Calif. didn't make a fuss about my prayer schedule,” he said, “and often asked that I pray for them while I was praying.”

“Ironically, the only time I had issues in the workplace related to my daily prayer schedule was when I was in college and worked part-time for an employer that was of Muslim origin/background but no longer practiced,” Ahmed continued. “Though she was very familiar with the customs and religious obligations, she often made comments behind my back to other employees. She expressed her frustration that I was ‘always praying’ even though my prayer breaks often coincided with my lunch break.”

Other Accommodation Challenges

In some cases, the nature of the work environment might make it harder for employers to accommodate Muslim employees’ religious practices, such as when employees wear uniforms, operate machinery or have allotted break times.

For example, according to a July 21, 2010, statement by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), White Lodging Services, Inc., which manages the Louisville Marriott Downtown Hotel, had to pay $40,000 and furnish other relief to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the EEOC after the company allegedly refused to allow four Muslim women to wear religious head scarves at work.

“Many Muslim women wear the ‘hijab’ or head scarf,” said Shea. “This should not be difficult to accommodate in most work settings, but in a factory or in some other environments, it could create a safety issue or interfere with job performance,” she told SHRM Online.

“Generally, the courts allow employers to impose dress or grooming codes that violate employees' religious beliefs if there is a compelling reason to do so [usually safety],” she explained. “Otherwise, the employer would be required to allow the employee to wear the scarf. It would not be legitimate to forbid a Muslim employee from wearing a hijab on the grounds that wearing one would be a ‘turn-off’ to employees or even customers.”

Douglas A. Hicks, professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond and author of Religion and the Workplace (Cambridge University Press, 2003), said employers should take a proactive approach by asking employees what they need in order to fulfill their religious commitments and be effective employees.“Firms that allow workers the flexibility to arrange their schedules to pray—or to observe holidays—will typically find good results from appreciative employees,” he told SHRM Online.

Employers can learn more about how Muslims practice their faith during the workday in An Employer’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices, a brochure published by CAIR.

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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