The UK workforce is comprised of a myriad of cultures, religions and beliefs which all make our society richly diverse. Tolerance in the workplace and demonstrating an understanding of the concerns and cultural variances of employees is paramount in a time where there is ever increasing polarisation between different religions and cultures.
The Muslim Council of Britain recently published its report, “Defining Islamophobia: A contemporary understanding of how expressions of Muslimness are targeted”, which examines the discrimination faced by Muslim, makes recommendations on how to tackle Islamophobia, and what employers can be doing to build a more inclusive environment for Muslim staff, including during Ramadan.
The holy month of Ramadan commenced on 12 April this year. This is an Islamic festival which is observed by Muslims across the globe. Ramadan lasts for a lunar month and during this time many Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during hours of daylight, instead eating before dawn (suhoor) and at sunset (iftar). With our evenings growing longer and lighter, this means that they will not be able to consume food or water for around 16 – 17 hours a day, which is particularly arduous in warmer weather.
Whilst some Muslims may seek to take time off work during Ramadan, many are likely to continue working during the month. Fasting will inevitably have an effect on their productivity and concentration levels and they may find themselves suffering from fatigue. It is important for employers to understand the challenges facing their employees during this time and I thought it would be helpful to remind employers how they can seek to support their employees who are observing this festival, whilst also ensuring that they are not placing unreasonable extra burdens upon their other employees. Employees may still be working from home and so employers should try to apply flexibility to current working from home practices, and be mindful of the challenges of fasting whilst working from home.
1. Accommodate flexible working
Employers may find that the performance of their employees who are observing a religious custom or festival is affected and may prefer that such employees take time off from work during this period. However, employers should understand that seeking to impose leave unilaterally on these employees is likely to amount to direct discrimination and an act of less favourable treatment because of religion. Employers should note that whether the time is paid or unpaid is unlikely to be of relevance.
ACAS guidance and the ECHR Code of Practice suggest adopting a practical approach and discussing with the employee whether there are any temporary arrangements which could be put in place for the duration of Ramadan.
One way in which to do this is to offer employees who are observing Ramadan the option to work flexibly, this could involve:
- Holding meetings at more suitable times during the day
- Arrange working hours differently for the month – some staff may wish to start their day earlier or later or work through their lunch hours.
The EHRC Code gives an example of how an employer could make adjustments:
'A Muslim teacher is fasting for Ramadan which is an integral part of her religion. The head teacher of the school, in consultation with the other teachers, has agreed to change the dinnertime rota so she does not have to supervise the dining hall during her fasting period. This adjustment to her duties does not amount to unfavourable treatment of non-Muslim staff members, so would not amount to direct discrimination.'
Ramadan is a sacred, reflective time and those observing the festival may not be inclined to attend social activities or client events which are scheduled for the evening. Employers should be sensitive to this and try to accommodate requests from employees to excuse themselves from such events. Importantly, employers must ensure that those observing the festival are not penalised or do not suffer any disadvantage through not being able to attend such events, as this could potentially be discriminatory; nor should they penalise employees whose productivity is diminished as a result of fasting.
2. Rest breaks
Individuals observing the festival should be encouraged to take rest breaks where needed. They may also wish to practise their faith more during Ramadan than they do at other times of the year and employers should be sensitive to this, and try to accommodate requests to take more breaks during the day than would ordinarily be taken.
3. Annual leave requests
Employers may find that there is a high demand for annual leave from those who are observing the festival, particularly during the end of Ramadan which is marked by the festival of Eid. It is difficult for employees to plan in advance because Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar, so annual leave requests may be made at short notice.
Employers should ensure that they deal with annual leave requests in a fair manner and in line with the annual leave policy. Where it is not possible to grant leave, employers should provide reasoned, rational justifications for the refusal. In addition, where annual leave requests are granted for those observing the festival, employers should ensure that other employees do not suffer any detriment as a result.
4. Awareness, tolerance and understanding
Values such as awareness, tolerance and understanding are the cornerstone of nurturing a healthy employer/employee relationship. Employees will feel valued where employers try to understand what is important to them, whether that is in relation to their faith or otherwise.
Employers could introduce a clear policy on Ramadan, or better yet, on religious festivals generally, setting out what the expected employee standards are, and what employees observing religious festivals can expect in terms of support. Having such a policy should have an affirming impact on employees. Employers should however, be aware that making allowances for employees observing one religion, but refusing to acknowledge requests of others will undoubtedly amount to religious discrimination. Employers should therefore pay careful attention to the possible discriminatory impact of their policies on one group of employees as against the benefit to another, and seek to maintain a fair and balanced approach when dealing with any issues.
Being an open, accepting and considerate employer where you can show yourself as progressive in your thinking and approach will no doubt have a positive impact on the ethos of your organisation, and will help to ensure that you continue to attract a diverse and balanced workforce.
If you require further information about anything covered in this blog, please contact Shehnal Amin or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, April 2021