Understanding our Muslim Colleagues

Among the new faces brought by the influx of immigrants to Western countries, is an increasing Muslim population. As these individuals seek to enter the workforce and be productive members of society, HR managers may find it beneficial to upgrade their diversity knowledge to address the concerns of Muslim employees. Additionally increasing numbers of Western employees find themselves on international assignments which may often lead to the Middle East or other Muslim-majority countries. The brief comments in this article seek to offer a basic understanding of key aspects of the Islamic faith that most frequently come to bear in the Western workplace, as well as offer a guidepost for interactions with Muslim colleagues in other scenarios.

Muslims celebrate an array of cultural traditions native to their home country which often have absolutely nothing to do with religion but tend to hold greater personal influence. It is a fine task to separate the two, and so you may find Eastern European Muslims have different customs than Muslims from Africa or Asia. Some of your Muslim staff may even be converts to Islam or second generation children of immigrants who were raised in your own culture. To that end, I will offer only comments which are based in religious traditions so as to avoid the blurry lines of culture and religion.

Islam is part of the Abrahamic line of monotheistic faiths. Many Westerners may find it surprising that Islam cherishes Jesus, Moses, the Virgin Mary, and other iconic figures of Judaism and Christianity. Muslims may find it equally surprising that their Western colleagues view them as so fundamentally different when in reality they hold the same core beliefs.

Islam’s foundations are the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and the Holy Quran, which Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad as the capstone of other revealed texts including the Torah, Bible, Pslams, and others. Together these texts instill a way of everyday life. For a practicing Muslim this is the path to Heavenly Paradise and deviating from it is not something easily negotiated. I would like to highlight 5 key areas which may surface in the work place: Mixing of Genders, Social Interaction, Clothing, Praying & Fasting, and Unclean Foods.

Mixing of Genders
This is one of the most popular issues when discussing Islam. Why is this so fundamental? In easy terms, the central, underlying reason is to keep the Muslim from temptation. A quick glance of a woman’s legs or a whiff of a man’s musky cologne has sent all our minds into a moment of double take or prolonged gaze at some point (let’s be honest). The Muslim would rather not have this temptation or be the source of it and will take necessary steps to avoid this. Muslims believe that they will be held accountable for each thought, deed, and word—whether good or bad—on the Day of Judgment including reactions to temptations.

In the workplace the avoidance of temptation can be seen in many ways. Muslim employees may not actively recognize the reasons why they avoid mixed gender interactions and may simply do so as an auto-pilot reaction they have learned since childhood. Whatever the mindset, typical behaviors include not shaking hands with the opposite sex, feeling uncomfortable when alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex, and certainly a sense of awkwardness if complimented on their good looks or physique by the opposite gender.

How can we be sensitive to these preferences? By simply respecting one another’s space and taking the time to be considerate of others. In the case of handshaking, allow your Muslim colleague to make the first step. If they initiate a handshake gladly accept it. Physical gestures which are common in the West such as greeting with a kiss on the cheek or hug should also be avoided except if between the same sex. In many Muslim countries, even husbands and wives do not kiss on the cheek in public so be careful not to overstep your boundaries.

If you must work on a project completely alone with a Muslim colleague of the opposite sex, ask if they would like to keep the door open or rearrange the seating. Where relevant include your other team members. This should not be a hindrance to getting work done, and these simple concessions may even increase your mutual comfort level and lead to higher quality interactions.

Indeed each of us has our own comfort zones and concept of personal space. The awkwardness felt by Muslim employees in these circumstances would be akin to overhearing a distasteful joke or feeling uncomfortable by a colleague who pats your back and whose hand lingers a bit too long.

Outside of our immediate workplace, these lessons regarding respecting private space are of increasing importance in a globalized economy where you may find yourself traveling on business to Malaysia, Dubai or other predominantly Muslim locations. If not in the office setting itself, these concepts may save you from some social faux pas at the very least.

From a talent management standpoint it should be noted that because of the tendency to avoid mixed gender interaction, behaviors by female Muslim employees to keep their distance with male employees may lead them to be written off as lacking enough assertiveness for promotion. Many Muslim women have a high level of education (as is encouraged in the Quran) and in the correct environment can contribute very effectively. Consider allowing employees to work on solo projects or assign mentors of the same sex. This may vary based on an individual’s personality and should be gauged accordingly.

Social Interaction
Practicing Muslims will do their best to avoid gossiping or backbiting. The precept from childhood, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” fits well in this context.

Remember that Muslims believe every word they say will be brought to bear before them one day. In the case of gossiping, it is seen as detracting from a person’s honor which will have to be repaid in the hereafter, and what’s worse, from your own store of good deeds! So you can see why a Muslim would not want to take part in this.

In the workplace you may have come across Muslim employees who seem to keep to themselves or do not linger too long at the water cooler. While individual personality may be a factor as well, you are likely to find that at the root of this behavior is a desire to avoid gossip. In this same vein, you may also observe an unwillingness to deliver negative remarks about colleagues during a performance review.

How can we include our Muslim colleagues? In cases where a clear assessment is needed about the work of others, frame the discussion as an objective, business-only (nothing personal) issue. When it comes to including Muslims in lunchtime discussions, lean away from talking specifically about one person and talk generally about office issues (i.e. this guy in accounting drives me up the wall vs. Mike from accounting is an idiot).

Your Muslim colleagues would be happy to join the lunchroom chatter, they just would prefer not to spend their good deeds in the process. There are plenty of topics which are fair game such as sharing stories about your kids, weekend plans, griping together about the noisy office construction, etc.

You may have noticed your female Muslim employees dress in various styles: from wearing the hijab (headscarf), to long sleeved clothing, to following the trends of non-Muslim employees. These differences in clothing have more to do with culture and personal preference than religion. In truth, a practicing Muslim woman should comply with the hijab and dress modestly.

“And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their head coverings to cover their bosoms”, (Quran, Surat Al Noor 24:31)

Before we move on I would like to quickly dispel some popular myths about hijab. The hijab is meant to be worn only when outside the home or in the presence of males who are not immediate blood relatives, husbands, or father-in-laws. As seen in the Quranic quote above, the purpose of the hijab is to guard one’s modesty and beauty from the plain sight of strangers.

Many Muslim women in the West hesitate to wear hijab because they are worried about discrimination in the workplace and street. I have known many women who wore hijab in their home country, but in the West fear that doing so would endanger their job and expose them to discrimination in the workplace and on the street. This is truly unfortunate because many Western countries have anti-discrimination laws that would protect against an undue dismissal or discriminatory violence. Indeed HR managers are also placing a higher emphasis on diversity awareness these days, and many people are becoming more open-minded to hijabs in general.

Men have their own set of clothing restrictions, which are not usually brought to light in the workplace. It is prescribed for men to cover their bodies from knee to navel at minimum. Unless you are managing an Olympic swim team, this is probably not an issue.

Muslim men may wish to grow out their beards to follow the Hadith. You should be aware that Men often feel the same worries and doubts about growing out their beards as women with regard to wearing the hijab. Indeed it is a curious fear because there are plenty of non-Muslim men who sport beards quite comfortably. These worries most likely arise from the negative media attention placed on any trait which might be associated with Islam.

What should an HR manager do? You may not even be sure the degree to which your employee wishes to follow Islamic dress codes, so the best thing would be to post clearly your company’s attitude toward allowing religious dress. Indeed, fostering support for the hijab will be a vote of confidence for the Jewish yarmulke, Sikh turban and other religions as well.

If your workplace requires a certain uniform that would not easily accommodate a woman’s Islamic dress or any other religious attire, then your uniform standards should also be clearly posted. If changes to uniforms are being considered, HR should be involved to troubleshoot for any possible employee conflicts. A recent legal case came about in the UK involving a female Muslim waitress who after a week on the job was informed the uniform would be changed to a short red cocktail dress for all female employees. The Muslim waitress’ religious beliefs made her feel uncomfortable wearing the new uniform and she even received sexual propositions from guests when wearing it. The ensuing lawsuit was based on sexual harassment and sex discrimination but led to controversy layered in religion and morality.

The lesson learned from this case is to have clear dress code policies. These are standard in any company and perhaps only need some fine-tuning to make room for the dress customs of your Muslim employees or those of other spiritual beliefs.

When traveling or working in a Muslim country, women should be especially mindful as to their choice of dress. Wearing shorts or knee length skirts can be an invitation for unwanted attention on the street and bad impressions in the workplace which may lead to not being taken seriously. Blouses should also be at least short-sleeved and have modest necklines. In general overly form-fitting clothes should also be avoided. Men may have more flexibility in the clothes they wear but should lean toward more traditional styles of suits when on business meetings.

Prayer and Fasting
These are two of the five pillars of Islam with which all Muslims must comply.

There are 5 obligatory prayers throughout the day (pre-dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, evening). For jobs on a 9 to 5 schedule, usually 1 to 3 prayers will fall within the workday, depending on the time of year. Praying usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes and is preceded by a ritual purification that can take as little as 30 seconds. This purification involves cleansing various parts of the body with water. Muslims believe that when they pray they are in a direct spiritual encounter with God himself. As such, they need to be clean and presentable.

Most countries have laws which define breaks and lunch hours. This time is usually sufficient to perform prayers, but obviously some time is needed to do what non-Muslims do on their break as well, like visiting the coffee machine.

You may consider providing Muslims with a quiet place where they may pray which will both make it easier for them to meet their religious duties and will also cutback time that would have otherwise been spent scouting out a place to pray. Note that female employees may not feel comfortable praying in a public location. Knowing the importance of modesty, a female may not feel comfortable bowing and prostrating for prayer in front of males

Muslims may not interrupt their prayers for any reason (except if life-threatening). If you are calling a Muslim employee to join a meeting and he has not finished praying, do not expect him to respond or move immediately. He can hear you and may hasten to finish; however, each prayer has a prescribed length and he may not shorten this in anyway. Therefore one should not assume that an employee is “ignoring” or “showing indifference’, when actually he is just trying to finish praying.

For people who follow the Jewish faith, this interdiction against interrupting prayers will be familiar. As recently as September 2006 , a Hasidic Jewish man on a flight from Montreal to New York was praying just before take off. The flight attendants made repeated attempts to get the man to sit down not knowing that he was praying and could not interrupt his prayers. The flight attendants became nervous and had to return the man to the gate where his actions could be properly assessed and he was made to catch a later flight.

Though not directly related to Islam, this instance provides an excellent example of how easily misinterpretations can arise. In the workplace this can be avoided by clearly defining meeting times in advance. This way Muslim employees can plan their prayer breaks around the meeting. This is actually a quite simple piece of advice and should be followed regularly in any workplace.




Fasting is performed during the Holy month of Ramadan which is believed to be the month in which all the sacred texts began to be revealed to their respective prophets in their respective eras. From dawn to dusk, Muslims are not allowed to either eat or drink. At sunset Muslims break their fast with the iftar (break fast) meal and must not delay doing so. Fasting from food and drink is the apparent outward aspect of Ramadan, but the holy month involves a spiritual fasting from improper speech or images and from losing one’s temper.

The Islamic calendar is about 11 days behind the 365 day Gregorian cycle. In 2009, Ramadan will be celebrated from approximately 21st August to 21st September and next year will fall approximately 11 days earlier. In the northern hemisphere this may mean as long as 18 hours each day where Muslims will not be able to eat or drink. Though similar to fasting during Yom Kippur or Lent, to many non-Muslims the prospect of not eating or drinking all day will seem grueling. Yet, to those who celebrate the fast of Ramadan it is often the most favorite time of the year.

Yes, fasting can take its physical toll including low-energy, nausea, sensitivity to smell, headaches and so on. But Muslims try not to dwell on these physical discomforts during the day and dig deep into their reserve of faith and patience to continue their fast until dusk. What follows the breaking of the fast is a time of family get-togethers. relaxation, and prayer. Ramadan is anticipated very warmly much like Christians build up their enthusiasm for the Christmas season.

Many Muslims find that they are more productive during Ramadan. This month of reflection and disconnect from worldly desires translates to the workplace as taking account for one’s responsibilities, less wasting time on coffee breaks, and steering clear of idle activities.

Muslim employees may ask to rearrange their schedule during Ramadan or ask for days off, particularly the last 10 days of the month which are considered to be the holiest days. A quick smile from a coworker, offering to take a stretching break, and asking how someone is feeling can really make the month go by quickly.

Some workplaces and universities have taken extra steps to be inclusive of Muslims during Ramadan. If you have a particularly large number of Muslim employees, you may consider sponsoring a community iftar (break fast) at some time during the month. Other creative ideas may be pursued that foster understanding between you employees. One particularly clever ideas is sponsoring a “Fastathon”, as was carried out at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., to raise money for a local food bank. Muslims and non-Muslims alike could participate by making a $10 donation. Those who wished to fast could do so, and at the end of the Fastathon day all participants joined together in a large iftar to break their fast. Leftovers and the money collected were taken to a food bank immediately thereafter.

Clean and Unclean Foods
Halal or clean food is another popular topic when it comes to Islam. This concept is similar to the Kosher designation in Judaism but differs when it comes to technicalities such as how to slaughter meet. This information may be useful in company-wide functions or in company cafeterias where food selection may arise.

To be precise, the only food which are prohibited for consumption under Islamic guidelines are pork, blood, carrion, and the meat of beasts of prey. Meat should be slaughtered in a humane fashion as is prescribed in the Quran in order to be considered Halal. In addition, all alcoholic beverages are considered unclean and alcohol as an ingredient in sauces, medicines, mouthwash, and other such products may be avoided.

Being designated Halal is the pinnacle of cleanliness for Muslims, but it is also stated in the Quran that Muslims may eat from foods prepared by Christians and Jews so long as they do not consume the items which are explicitly haram or unclean(pork, alcohol, blood, etc.).

“Lawful to you is the [flesh of every] beast that feeds on plants, save what is mentioned to you…. FORBIDDEN to you is carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God’s has been invoked, and the animal that has been strangled, or beaten to death, or killed by a fall, or gored to death, or savaged by a beast of prey, save that which you [yourselves] may have slaughtered while it was still alive; and [forbidden to you is] all that has been slaughtered on idolatrous altars…. Today, all the good things of life have been made lawful to you. And the food of those who have been vouchsafed revelation aforetime is lawful to you, and your food is lawful to them.” (Quran, Surat al Maidah 5:1,3,5)

As with any religion, there exist layer upon layer of details and precepts that make up one’s spiritual fabric. Yet if we start by learning bit by bit about one another’s faith and truly being considerate of our friends and colleagues, we can start on a path for mutual understanding in the workplace and in society. Many people feel proud of their religion and culture and are happy to share details with those who are respectful and a curious enough to ask.

I recommend taking the time this Ramadan or throughout the year to learn more about your Muslim employees.

This article was written by Catherine Trombley, Global Mobility Specialist, from Rutherfoord International.