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Islam in the Workplace - suggested practice for HR personnel

Muslims now form one of the largest religious groups in the UK. At a time when great misunderstandings and stereotypes circulate the media and society regarding the religion, it is crucial for an effort to be made at all levels to go beyond archetypal images and to begin to understand Islam and Muslims.

With a population of approximately 1.5 million Muslims and growing, UK based companies are employing more and more young Muslim men and women. With this increase comes a greater need for HR practitioners to be aware of the respective cultural sensitivities.

As with individuals from any background, if they do not feel comfortable and understood in their office or company, it is likely that they will eventually seek employment elsewhere. In order to maximise retention of young Muslims, it is ever more important therefore, that their sensitivities are kept in mind.

The following information contains basic tips and guidelines for HR staff and others to bear in mind. Please note that these are very generic 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. 

Prayer

A Muslim, both male and female, is expected to pray five times a day. This prayer involves facing Makkah (in Saudi Arabia), usually on a prayer mat or clean surface and reciting prayers which follow a procedure of bowing and prostrating. This typically takes between 5 - 15 minutes depending on the individual. Prayer times are calculated according to the movement of the sun and take place at dawn, midday, late afternoon, dusk and at night.

For Muslims in your company it is a good idea to allocate a neutral space for them to use for their prayers. This can be a dedicated prayer room or simply access to a seldom used office or medical room. Such a space will make your Muslim staff feel at comfort knowing they have somewhere private and clean to say their prayers.

If staff are required to be committed to a desk space at certain times it may be a good idea to agree on allocated times in which they can read their prayers. This may involve the use of break times.

Friday Prayers

Most Muslim men attend the mosque on Friday afternoons for obligatory congregational prayers. Let your staff know you understand their requirements and agree on an extended lunch break and/or allocate their Friday lunch breaks to convenient times. Most mosques conduct prayers at 1.30 p.m. so try to aim for an hour between 1 - 2p.m.

Fasting

Fasting takes places during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan does not correspond neatly to any Gregorian months due to its method of calculation. It changes from year to year by about ten days. The more devout Muslims may also fast on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year.

Fasting involves abstinence from food, drink, chewing and smoking from dawn till dusk. At dusk, Muslims traditionally break their fast with dates and water before proceeding to eat a meal.

In the workplace it is best to be aware of staff who are fasting as this avoids potential offence if the staff member declines an invite to lunch or to some other function involving food.

Dress

Most Muslim men will be wearing a shirt and tie like their colleagues and very few would challenge a dress code. This is simply because dress is not an area where strict guidelines exist in Islam.

One area Muslim men may clash with company policy is in their wearing of beards. If you have strict guidelines regarding facial hair or follow certain health and hygiene procedures, then it is wise to ensure that potential male Muslim employees are made aware of these procedures. You should also be willing to either compromise on religious grounds or ensure that beard covers are made available.

Muslim women are required to cover their hair (hijab) and to dress modestly. Many do neither but it is best to be aware of the needs of those who do. If your company has a uniform or a certain dress code be sure it permits the wearing of hijabs. Many companies have now taken the step to provide hijabs which match the company uniform.

Holidays

Generally Muslims in the UK take holidays as and when they need to. There are however a few dates of significance that should be noted.

Eid al-Fitr - this holiday celebrates the end of the month of Ramadan and fasting. It is traditionally a time when extended families congregate and presents given to children.
Although this holiday extends over a three day period, many Muslims typically take a single day holiday.

Eid al-Adha - celebrates the end of the Hajj (pilgrimage) and commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son. In Muslim countries sheep, goats and camels and usually sacrificed and the meat distributed the family, neighbourhood and the poor. In the UK such meat is ordered through a butcher due to our laws. 
As with Eid al-Fitr, Muslims typically take a single day holiday during this period.

Socialising

One of the major discomforts for Muslims in the British workplace may involve the socialising culture of the office. Typical business culture involves after work socializing in pubs or restaurants. As Muslims do not drink any alcohol and places such as pubs, bars and discos are not considered suitable venues for relaxation, then Muslim staff may politely decline such offers.

This should not be interpreted as bad manners of unfriendliness, but rather a difference in cultures that should be respected. When planning team building trips or exercises or team outings always bear in mind a Muslim member of staff may feel uncomfortable if the venue is a pub, bar or even a restaurant serving alcohol. It is always best to check with that staff member first.

Try to think of alternative venues where all staff will be comfortable.

Food

There are certain restrictions as to what a Muslim can/can't eat.

Meat must always be halal. Such meat has been slaughtered according to Islamic practice. If halal meat cannot be sourced then Muslims are allowed to eat Kosher meat too. Pork is not eaten at all by Muslims.

Always check ingredients of foods you plan to share out or use in staff lunches. Foods not suitable for vegetarians may contain non-halal meat or meat derivatives (e.g. gelatine) and cannot be eaten. Similarly, foods with alcohol content should also be avoided.

An easy way to overcome any catering difficulties is to provide a vegetarian option.

Touch/Personal Space

The legal opinion in Islam is that touching between men and women should be avoided; however this is applied at an individual's discretion. Although not common in the UK, as compared with the Gulf, you may come across Muslim men and women who do not like to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. If you are unsure then it is advisable to wait and see if they extend their hands first.

Muslim men and women may also find close personal contact between sexes very uncomfortable. Unless you know otherwise be sure to leave a good deal of personal space.

As mentioned in the introduction, these are broad guidelines only and the degree of support from a business / HR perspective will be entirely dependant on the individual involved.  Care should be taken therefore not to assume the needs of a member of staff, but to simply be aware of possible issues and resulting interventions if these become necessary.

If you feel you or your staff could benefit from a more detailed briefing on the above information, then please see our Cross Cultural Training Course on Islam.

© Kwintessential Ltd