Over recent years, workforces have become increasingly diverse.
This means that employers now need to take account of a wider range of cultural and religious sensitivities, not least for staff motivation purposes.
One important such consideration among Muslim workers is Ramadan, which starts this year on Friday 20 July. Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar and lasts for 29 or 30 days depending on visual sightings of the crescent moon.
It is considered a sacred month as it was during this time that Mohammad received his revelations about the Quran and as a result, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sexual relations from dawn until sunset in order to honour God.
Here are some questions that are frequently asked on the subject of Ramadan:
Q: A number of my employees are practising Muslims. They have complained that they feel forced to take time off over Christmas (because we have a one-week shut down) and yet have to use their holiday entitlement if they want to take time off during Ramadan, which lasts for a month.
They believe that this situation amounts to religious discrimination. What can we do?
A: There is no right in UK law that allows staff to take time off to celebrate or take part in religious ceremonies, but an employer should accommodate an employee’s religion, where possible, and treat staff fairly and reasonably.
Operationally, the Christmas break is a result of the bank holidays that occur throughout the country. Shut-downs are an increasingly common occurrence because of the significant reduction in business productivity between Christmas and New Year.
While this coincides with the Christian calendar, it is not religious discrimination to implement a shut-down and/or require your employees to take holiday if they wish to participate in other religious events or festivities.
Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting where participating Muslims do not consume food (and drink) during the day, and prayers and meals take place between sundown and sunrise.
This year, Ramadan will run from the 20 July for 30 days until 18 August. From a practical point of view, productivity is likely to be affected as people’s energy levels will be lower due to the amount of time that they are not eating or drinking.
Furthermore, if an employee’s wish to take time-off is ignored without fair consideration, there may also be an impact on their motivation levels.
In light of this, you may want to discuss alternative ways of supporting affected staff members. For example, if you operate shifts, you might be able to accommodate alternative patterns or swaps during this month.
Alternatively, you might wish to consider delaying start or finishing times in order to allow individuals more time to attend prayers or consume meals. Another possibility is to agree with the employees concerned that they can either take holiday or, if possible, special, unpaid leave.
Q: One of the workers on my night shift is a follower of the Islamic faith and has come to me to talk about Ramadan. He doesn’t have enough holiday left to take time off and we are short on staff as a lot of people have already booked their summer holiday.
What provisions must we provide for him so that he can consume food and drink and take part in prayers during the hours of sundown?
A. As an employer, you should seek to accommodate an employee’s individual religious needs where possible. While you are not obliged to give them time away from employment if this would be too disruptive, you should see what can be done to act as an alternative.
During Ramadan, followers of the Muslim faith can only eat between sunset and sunrise and they are also supposed to offer more prayers than usual at this time.
As a night worker, the majority of your employee’s working hours are likely to occur during this period and, as a result, he may need more breaks than other workers. This situation should be discussed with him, perhaps with the possibility of allowing him to take additional unpaid breaks.
It is likely that your staff member may also wish to pray or take time for contemplation during these hours. If this is the case, it is likely that he will want a quiet area where he will not be disturbed.
If you don’t already have a prayer room, you could look at allowing access to an office, or perhaps an area normally only used by day staff that would mean the employee is not disturbed.
You are not obliged to pay the staff member for time taken off for these reasons and so could agree that it will either be unpaid or the time will be made up elsewhere.
Q. Our company policy states that employees must spend their lunch hour away from their desk. As we are based in the middle of an industrial estate, there aren’t many places for people to go and so we have a designated “break out” area, which also has a canteen and eating area.
An employee has recently approached me to discuss Ramadan. She says that she cannot eat during the day (she works a normal 9am– 5pm) and doesn’t want to be surrounded by food during her lunch hour. Instead she would prefer to stay at her desk. We don’t generally allow exceptions to the policy, but should we consider it in this instance?
A. As an employer, you are obliged to do what you can to accommodate religious requirements. While being required to spend her breaks in the “break out” area won’t force your employee to break her fast, it could make following her religion more difficult, or at least make her working time more uncomfortable.
This situation could, in turn, be perceived as indirect discrimination as it is a provision, criterion or practice that puts this person at a particular disadvantage when compared with someone who does not share her religious belief.
However, it is likely that you could demonstrate that your designated break-out area policy is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, in that you insist all employees take their lunch hour away from their desks in order to comply with your responsibilities under the Working Time Regulations 1998 and to act in the best interests of their health and safety.
I would suggest talking to the employee about perhaps taking a walk around the estate during the designated lunch times or looking to see if she can spend her lunchtimes at an alternative location (for example, an office or meeting room).
Although, ultimately, you are not obliged to make exceptions to your policy, in practically terms it may be the best way to ensure that the working relationship with your employee remains positive.
Louise Barnes is a senior employment consultant at HR and legal services provider, Croner.