As we work to create more equitable workplaces, we need to understand and support the needs of all identities that have been marginalized or underserved. Muslims are arguably one of the most misunderstood identities in the United States, and as such, their needs are often overlooked. This can lead to a lowered sense of belonging, or feelings of being unsafe and discriminated against.
After hearing Alaa Badr, vice president at VMware and a Muslim community leader, speak about the experience of being a Muslim in tech, it became clear that there are several actionable ways we can all do a better job of supporting Muslims in the workplace. I spoke with Badr, as well as several other Muslim leaders across a range of companies, to share their insights.
1. Invest in Understanding
Much of the misunderstanding and mistreatment of Muslims stems from vastly uninformed perceptions of Islam. Many of those misunderstandings overlook the compassionate core of what Muslims believe. As Glenn Block, senior director at DocuSign, shares, “A key component of our faith, which is emphasized in the Qur’an, is about the importance of taking care of those in need. I believe this beautiful side of Islam is often lost, due to the political climate and the areas of focus of the media.”
Mohammad Sarhan, senior director at Zillow, echoes this sentiment: “I find that people make assumptions about what it is we believe. At the end of the day, we believe the human being is sacred, and regardless of practices that clash with Islam, we still have a very high level of respect and love for our coworkers. Unfortunately, we often do not see the same level of respect and love in return.”
There can also be confusion about what Muslims look like or where they come from. As Badr explains, “We don’t always come from the same country, we can’t be identified through nationality or race and we bring many varied cultures to the organizations where we work.” Separating what someone looks like from their belief system can be a way of showing understanding and inclusivity.
2. Practice Inclusive Scheduling
One easy and meaningful way to be inclusive of Muslim employees is to be aware of their schedule needs.
Many Muslims pray five times a day for short periods, and as many as three or four of those periods may fall during work hours. As Laila Almounaier, director at Expedia explains, “Providing a private area for prayer, along with a private restroom or sink to perform Wudu [washing performed before prayer] helps Muslim employees feel included and empowered in the workplace. This area can also serve as a meditation room for individuals with other religious backgrounds or for anyone looking for a moment to decompress.” This need applies not only in the office, but also during company events or offsites. And remember to make this space and time available to potential employees when they come in for interviews. Badr explains that we need to “understand that praying is an important part of every Muslim’s DNA and we take it seriously.”
Many Muslims also attend mid-day Friday Prayer at a mosque, usually requiring about 90 minutes including travel time. As Almounaier shares, “Being mindful and supportive in scheduling critical meetings outside of this time enables employees to practice their religion freely and be productive at work.”
Ramadan is another opportunity to support Muslim employees’ scheduling needs. During this month, Muslims are fasting from food and drink from dawn until dusk every day. As Block explains, “Ramadan is a special time for Muslims where they prefer to be with their families and not traveling. You can support them by not scheduling mandatory travel or team meals during this month.”
Muslim holidays, including Ramadan, Eid ul-Adha and Eid ul-Fitr, are based on the lunar calendar, so dates can vary and are not always known too far in advance. A great way to support employees’ scheduling needs in general is to ask them. Almounaier points out that “modifications to their schedule or core hours can help ease their fast and provide a more productive environment.”
3. Respect Gender Boundaries
Islam promotes some guidelines for the ways men and women interact that are good for colleagues and managers to be aware of. Block shares that “there are differing opinions on what is permissible, and Muslims will have different comfort zones. Some Muslim men and women may keep their gaze down, avoid shaking hands or refrain from mingling with a member of the opposite sex. Non-Muslims should know that this is not meant to offend or be disrespectful.” Badr shares that for managers meeting 1:1 with a Muslim employee of a differing gender identity, it is respectful to “keep a ‘way out’ that is both visible and open.”
There are often misunderstandings around the hijab [headscarf] that some Muslim women wear. Badr wants people to “understand that it isn’t being forced on her; that it is her choice and is not worn to put her down, but rather as a sense of modesty.”
When it comes down to it, honoring the differing comfort levels of all employees should be common practice. As Almounaier points out, “All of us want to create a workplace that is safe and respectful for everyone. Muslims come from diverse backgrounds, practices and personal preferences. Before engaging in physical forms of greetings such as a handshake or hug, it’s best to either ask how your colleague prefers to be greeted or wait to see how they extend the greeting.”
4. Accommodate Dietary Needs
Another simple way to create an inclusive environment for Muslim employees is through considerations around food and drink. Most Muslims do not eat pork products or drink alcohol. Block explains that “having a vegetarian option is good, having a seafood option is better and having halal food on the menu is best.” Of course, these dietary considerations also serve many other employees’ needs beyond Muslims as well.
Happy hours that are scheduled at a bar or revolve around alcohol can be less inclusive as well. Almounaier shares that these events “can pose a dilemma for Muslims. The dilemma of wanting to be included and build relationships yet not feeling comfortable participating or being in that environment.” Creating events that are outside of a bar environment and focusing on more than just drinking together can make the celebration more inclusive.
5. Show Compassion
Unfortunately, we see Muslims targeted by tragic events and discriminatory policies in the world around us. When such events occur, it is important to respond in a way that makes our Muslim colleagues feel seen and supported. This can mean acknowledging that an event occurred and checking in with the employee to see how they are doing. Badr shares that “all these events have a deep effect on your employee. Part of being an amazing leader is to face it, break it down and discuss it. If ever in doubt about something, don’t be afraid to ask your Muslim employee.” Block expands on this, “Saying to your Muslim co-workers that you are there for them and support them is one of the biggest things you can do that requires very little effort. I have been on the receiving end of this and as a Muslim, it really does feel good.”
As we learn more about what it takes to make Muslim employees feel a sense of belonging and support in the workplace, it turns out it’s not too difficult, but often overlooked. Making the effort to understand the beliefs and behaviors of Muslim employees can improve their experience at work and increase the sense of community amongst all employees.