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Is corporate America ready for Ramadan?

As Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, begins how will American workplaces accommodate their Muslim employees?

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Back in 2008, Muslim workers walked out of a meat-packing plant in Greeley, Colorado, because the company did not allow them to take breaks during their holy month of Ramadan for sunset prayers. Today, 14 years later, such incidents are almost unheard of, according to Muslim Americans and experts on faith and the workplace. 

“Overall, the recognition of Islamic religious practices in workplaces has improved over the years,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman and national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Thirty years ago, it was a real problem — (Ramadan) wasn’t even on people’s radar.” 

There’s been a “sea change” in how corporate America deals with faith in the workplace in general and with Islam, in particular, said Brian Grim, founder and president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.

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A woman prays during the annual Community Ramadan breaking of the fast at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City on Saturday, June 11, 2016.

Weston Kenney, Deseret News archives

“I can’t say it’s penetrated every industry,” he said. But “among many of the corporations we work with, there have been concerted efforts to offer religious accommodations.”

Grim pointed to Google’s Inter Belief Network as a prime example of a major company that is getting it right when it comes to religion.

The month of Ramadan is physically and emotionally taxing. It involves fasting from sunrise to sunset every day; staying up late to pray or spend time with loved ones; waking up in the predawn hours to have suhoor, an early morning meal; praying five times each day; reading the Quran more than usual; and, for many, attending extended evening worship services that can last as long as two hours.

The month is also a period of intense introspection during which Muslims are to avoid conflict and weigh their words and deeds carefully. While sadakah, or charity, is mandatory for Muslims year round, they are supposed to increase their good deeds during Ramadan. 

In the workplace, Ramadan shows up in various ways, according to Sumreen Ahmad, global change management lead at Accenture and the company’s North America interfaith lead. Employees may have less free time. Those who normally travel for work might be reluctant to do so as they want to spend more time with their families or community. Muslim employees might not participate in meetings that take place over lunch or dinner and businesses could see “an uptick in holiday requests” during Ramadan, she said. 

While Muslim employees don’t expect or want those around them to “walk on eggshells,” they do want co-workers to be aware of the holy month, Ahmad said.

“Muslim colleagues just want others around them to be aware that this is happening and that this is a sacred month. You wouldn’t be asking your Christian employees to pull an all-nighter on Easter,” she said.

Accommodating Muslim employees during this time will look different according to the industry and the demands of their occupation, experts said. Generally speaking, observing Ramadan is easier for Muslims who have office jobs; those who work in production or in industries that involve food or customer service might struggle a bit more. 

“In most workplaces it doesn’t become an issue,” Hooper said. “People can take breaks, they can alter the time of their breaks.”

As the 2008 incident involving meatpackers points to, conflicts between the demands of the workplace and the demands of Ramadan are more likely to pop up in working class jobs. But workers’ needs can be accommodated and these problems are easy to resolve “when there is good will on all sides,” said Hooper. 

Greeley offers one example of a confrontation that was not amicably resolved. After Somali Muslim workers walked out of the JBS Swift factory in protest, they were fired. In 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against JBS Swift on behalf of approximately 300 Muslim workers who faced discrimination at the meatpacking plant. Last year, JBS agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle the case, The Associated Press reported.

At other food plants where disputes arose regarding Ramadan-related breaks, the companies and Muslim employees found a solution.

Many American companies now have Muslim chaplains or interfaith groups or initiatives, all of which facilitate communication between Muslim employees and corporate leaders. 

While many companies have long considered race and ethnicity in their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, religion is increasingly getting consideration, too, Grim said.

“Religion is the next big thing,” he said. 

Today, it is standard that company policy includes provisions about religious practice, said Ahmad, explaining that the challenges Muslim employees face mostly stem from individuals who are unacquainted with the faith. According to a recent study highlighted by Religion News Service, Muslims perceive more discrimination in the workplace than Jews and Christians; the harassment they face is often verbal, showing up as teasing or “jokes.” It also takes the form of exclusion or othering.

“A lot of the hard work in this space is less about policy,” said Ahmad. “The issue with Islamophobia is ignorance. ... It’s all about elevating awareness.”