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Dear workplaces, here's how to support your Muslim workers

Sharika Parbin and Faria Ali discuss what workplaces could do better to support their Muslim colleagues.

Posted on 25 November 2020

Being Muslim in the British workplace

November is Islamophobia Awareness Month. Founded in 2012, it aims to shine a light on the discrimination Muslims face in various walks of life and to showcase the positive contributions Muslims make to society.
Islam is often associated with negative connotations: extremism and that it is fundamentally not compatible with British culture. It is important to highlight how these views can often isolate Muslim colleagues, but also to talk about how to combat this.
According to a recent study,  on average workers in Britain will spend 3,507 days at work over the course of their lifetime.  With this in mind, it’s particularly important to highlight the behaviours and remarks that many Muslims face whilst at work and which often go unreported.
When governments and the media around the world are openly engaged in Islamophobic behaviour, it is important that our workplaces go beyond ensuring diversity to make sure the culture of the workplace is fully inclusive.
Take the example of the NHS, which has been the focus for national pride, particularly during the pandemic. Here, Muslim workers have, like their colleagues, put themselves at risk and have battled the pandemic on behalf of the nation.
There are reports of Islamophobic abuse towards NHS staff from their own colleagues. HuffPost UK undertook a survey on Islamophobia faced by NHS workers and published an article under the headline Muslim medics taunted about bacon and alcohol – by their own NHS colleagues. You only need to read a few paragraphs of this article to get a picture of a very unhappy and uncomfortable working environment for Muslims.
As well as a potentially hostile working environment, Muslim workers face many other barriers at work. A study by the Social Mobility Commission, showed that despite Muslims having high attainment in education, this isn’t reflected in the workplace, with only 6% going into professional jobs compared to 10% of the overall population.
Muslim women who wear Hijab are likely to be asked ‘did your dad force you to wear that’ or to be questioned about their attitude to acts of terror, extremism and ISIS. A report commissioned by European Network Against Racism and British group Faith Matters found that 50% of Muslim Hijab wearing women feel they missed out on job opportunities because of their beliefs.

How do you navigate around this?

It's easy for workplaces to claim they are inclusive and equal opportunities employers, and in basic terms they may well be. However organisational culture may unwittingly exclude certain colleagues.
Much of the social life of the British workplace is based on the consumption of alcohol. Almost every event, every networking opportunity involves social drinking. It can be difficult and uncomfortable for practising Muslims to feel included or even attend such events. This instantly creates an invisible barrier for them in terms of fitting into their team, networking and ultimately making progress in their careers. 
Some simple steps could be taken. Having ‘mocktails’ available at drinks events might help those who don’t drink for reasons of religion, health or personal taste. Fizzy water doesn’t have to be the only alternative! 
It can be difficult and uncomfortable for the onus to be on a Muslim member of staff to raise these concerns as they don’t impact on the majority. However, the majority may often be made up of a collection of minorities and addressing the needs of some may in turn have a positive impact on the many. 
Here’s some useful pointers when dealing with inclusivity of Muslims workers in your workplace:
  • Make yourself culturally aware of the basic customs required in Islam. Muslims are required to pray daily, fast during Ramadan, avoid alcohol and eat halal food (food that complies with Islamic law).
  • Offer alternative networking opportunities where possible where the main focus is not alcohol and the rowdiness that can accompany that environment.
  • Ramadan can offer its own challenges, try to offer flexible working such as being flexible with start and finish times, check in on your colleagues and avoid long meetings in the afternoons, and also be conscious that Muslim staff will want to take time off during this holy month. Acas, a government funded service that offers advice to employers and employees, has a useful section on the “key workplace considerations during Ramadan”.
  • Have a faith room which is clean. Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and Fridays are seen as a holy day when there may be a need for a longer prayer break.
  • Accustom yourself to the phrases, ‘Ramadan Kareem’ (happy Ramadan), ‘Eid Mubarak’ (blessed feast / festival) – these simple things can go a long way.
  • Train staff so that they know what type of behaviour including questions or comments could not only be offensive to Muslims, but also could breach the legal provisions in the Equality Act 2010 which affords protection against religious discrimination.
  • Be inclusive and progressive for Muslim workers, encourage natural talent and work ethic by progressing them at the same rate as their counterparts.
  • Have events throughout the year or during Ramadan which encourages people to talk about Islam in a safe and open manner.

Sharika Parbin

Senior associate solicitor

Sharika Parbin is a senior associate solicitor in the employment department.