Monday 6th June is the start of Ramadan this year and it reminds me of a training session which I led 20+ years ago. It was the middle of summer and about 25 degrees out. Where almost all the delegates had bottles of water in front of them, one of the employees sat in the front row with an apple in front of him. The apple sat there all morning and all afternoon. At the end of the day I asked him what the apple was for, “Its Ramadan,” he explained, “I’m fasting.” Once he explained that, I understood it, but puzzled went on to ask him why the apple was sat there if our session ended at 4:30 in the afternoon and being Ramadan he could not eat until after dark. “It’s a reminder for me. A reminder not to eat. Eating is such a natural process and everyone around me is eating, so the Apple is a constant reminder of Ramadan and the fact that I am fasting”.
The employee was aware of his religious obligations, they didn’t impact on his ability to work or to attend training courses and they didn’t impact on anyone else on the course and that is very often the case with most employees and their religious practices (or none).
This year Ramadan continues until 5th July and because it coincides with the Summer Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, UK Muslims will be fasting for up to 19 hours a day this year.
So how might this impact on employers?
The biggest risk to employers, apart from tired and hungry employees is the risk of a discrimination claim. As with other forms of discrimination, if an employee feels that they are being either directly or indirectly discriminated against because of their religion (in this case being a Muslim), they would have a right to bring a claim against their employer.
So here are our Hot Tips to avoid the risk of a religious discrimination claim (and by the way, these could apply to any religion):
- Employers should be sensitive to the needs of Muslim employees.
- Perhaps avoid organising a team lunch or gala dinner during Ramadan. The same would apply with putting on a food centred event of Yom Kippur (the main Jewish fast day).
- Avoid compulsory overnight trips. If there is an unavoidable requirement, have an open conversation with your Muslim employee(s) and agree how best to balance the demands of the business with the religious obligations of the employee
- Allow short term flexibility to enable Muslims to observe their religious obligations. Any short term arrangements should be confirmed in writing as such and clearly communicated to all employees.
- Speak to Muslim employees and agree what is reasonable
- Provide a suitable space / room for prayer during the day
- Being flexible with start and finish times during the working day may be beneficial to facilitate fasting. Where employees work shifts, these could be used to limit the impact of Ramadan on the business.
- Fasting employees may appreciate working through their lunch hour and being able to start late or finish early. This may avoid long walks to / from work in the heat or crowded commuter trains.
- Breaks can also be altered on a temporary basis. But it is important to ensure that all employees still take regular breaks.
- Create an environment in which Religious needs can be discussed openly and balanced with the requirements of the business.
- Managing decreased productivity and performance issues
- Care needs to be taken to ensure that employees whose performance drops as a result of the impact of fasting are not indirectly discriminated against because of their Religion. It doesn’t mean that you can’t take action, just that you need to be very clear that this is a prolonged performance issue and not one directly related to Ramadan.
- A robust investigation should take place into the drop in performance and reasonable adjustments put in place before any kind of disciplinary outcome is considered.
Annual Leave for Eid
Eid – al – Fitr is at the end of Ramadan and is a holiday and celebration for many Muslims.
Hopefully all employers have a robust annual leave policy in place for managing holiday requests, however this may include how much notice must be given and the number of people out of the department at any one time.
If you have a number of Muslims employed in the business or in a particular department, advanced planning should be done to ensure that there are enough staff to cover the holiday requests. This is a religious holiday and although staff will usually be asked to take it from their normal holiday entitlement, it may still generate late requests (as the specific dates vary year on year) or multiple employee requests.
The key is planning ahead and knowing that Ramadan and Eid will happen on an annual basis. Understand how it will affect your employees and your business and work as a team to mitigate the impact.