• Ben Brooks-Dutton

Inclusion is for life, not just for Ramadan

Now the holy month of Ramadan has begun many Muslims in the workplace will be bracing themselves for the inevitable fasting-related question: “Not even water?”


This line of inquiry has become something of an in-joke within the community, the answer to which - like so many questions asked of those often labelled ‘diverse’ in the workplace - can be found with a quick Google search. Some answers, however, aren’t so easily reached. Questions like: How inclusive is my company for those who identify as Muslim? If I do not have any Muslim colleagues, then why is that?


These less search engine-friendly questions may leave people without the lived experience of being Muslim in the workplace or lived expertise of how to navigate different cultures wondering where to even begin. And that’s why we have passed the mic to four British Muslims who have shared their unfiltered views on how we can collectively build more inclusive cultures for Muslim employees and colleagues in the workforce.


Some contributors have asked to keep their identity hidden, so pseudonyms have been used. When questioned why they required anonymity, the main reason was a fear of employer reprisal - something that we believe really reinforces the need for conversations like this to be opened up.


‘Be proactive’

Workplace inclusion rarely happens by accident and employers must create the right environments for everyone to thrive. Lawyer Nabila Mallick advises that proactive measures are needed in order to tackle discrimination and create more inclusive workplaces for Muslim people.


“[This involves] looking at if, statistically, there are glass ceilings for Muslim employees”, says Nabila. She suggests exploring the diversity of leadership teams and considering how both promotion and recruitment processes are conducted. Nabila is particularly supportive of anonymous recruitment, especially as research shows that candidates with Muslim-sounding names are three times more likely to be passed over for jobs.


Another contributor, who preferred not to be named, added that cultural change cannot be achieved without buy-in from the top and empowerment across organisations. She shared an example: “I spoke to a senior colleague about a racist incident and despite assurances that the issue would be passed upwards and dealt with, it later transpired that never happened because the colleague was fearful of approaching their manager”.


‘Educate the workforce’

The modern workforce is shifting towards a more collective conscientiousness, capability and responsibility for ED&I, and educating colleagues about everything from microaggressions to anti-racism needs to be a part of this, otherwise those from minority backgrounds will continue to experience difficulties. An anonymous contributor added, “An Indian colleague of mine was told, ‘Guess you’re ordering the curry,’ whilst on a company trip to a non-Indian restaurant and that made her very uncomfortable.”


This contributor suggested that workplaces need safe spaces that allow for discussion on issues such as racism so that collectively we can avoid instances that can have real impacts on people’s sense of belonging, but that may otherwise be labelled as ‘insignificant’ or ‘banter’.


‘Understand that religion factors into inclusion (and exclusion)’

Treating everyone the same, believe it or not, can create exclusionary experiences in the workplace. Aisha - an analyst at a London-based consultancy - explained that none of her colleagues treat her differently because of her religion and has never felt directly discriminated against. However, because her colleagues do not consider her religion at all, their actions aren’t always inclusive.


“When colleagues suggest work socials, it always revolves around drinking and going to the pub,” she says, “which is quite uncomfortable because it can be a cultural shock that you just never get used to”.


Aisha adds, “When you’re the only Muslim in a company, you don’t want to be that one person who says, ‘Hey, can you stop doing that thing you love, for me?’”


‘Learn about and be respectful of protected characteristics’

In the UK, it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of age; gender reassignment; being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or on maternity leave; disability; race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin; sex; sexual orientation; and religion or belief. These are called ‘protected characteristics’ and people are protected from discrimination on these bases at work, in education, as consumers, when using public services, when buying or renting property, and as members or guests of a private clubs or associations.


Although religion is a protected characteristic, Aisha says that there are those who see religion as a private matter that “does not belong in the workplace” - something that she believes would never be said about other protected characteristics such as sex (gender) or race. “You don’t stop being a Muslim from 9 - 5”, she says.


Aisha also points out that while employers accommodate and celebrate Christmas by encouraging mass annual leave, the same considerations are rarely given to other religious festivals and holidays such as Eid.


‘Avoid tokenism’

While many organisations have taken on ‘diversity’ targets, the focus now must be on building inclusive environments where everyone can belong and thrive - and this means any notion of tokenism must be a thing of the past. Referencing a recent Channel 4 news report on stereotypes faced by Asian women, Suriyah Bi, a lecturer at SOAS University of London, cites the words of a 14-year-old girl named Khadija: “When you see me, you see my headscarf but it doesn’t define me.”


Suriyah wants employers to understand that “we’re working there because we see ourselves part of the organisation”, understand that “we are talented” and “allow us to take initiative, contribute, and be part of the organisation's identity.”


‘Consider what counts as gross misconduct’

An important step in creating inclusive workplaces is understanding what counts as gross misconduct. Suriyah goes on to say, “I’ve yet to come across a workplace that has a policy that directly states that any form of Islamophobia is an act of gross misconduct and can carry the risk of being dismissed.” Adding the potential impact that can have on negative behaviours, she adds, “When you don’t have a structure in place like that, it empowers and emboldens people.''

Suriyah suggests that policies need to shift and that all employees within organisations need to be made aware of the consequences of Islamophobia.


Final thoughts

We would like to thank our contributors for being so open about their experiences, and for responding to this piece with such enthusiasm. Inspired by the slogan “Nothing about us without us”, our inside out inclusion® framework is underpinned by insights to ensure that representative voices are always involved in any decision-making, which, in turn helps all involved grow in cultural confidence (the ability to navigate modern society and make necessary structural business change). We encourage readers to embrace the generous insights in this post, keep this conversation going and consider how action can be taken to make workplaces more inclusive of all underrepresented groups.


With lived expertise within The Unmistakables’ team and network, we provide consultancy on making workplaces more inclusive for people of all religions or beliefs, as well as across all other protected characteristics. In 2019 commissioned a survey to understand more about what it really means to be Muslim in the UK. More recently, we also consulted on Tesco's new 'Together this Ramadan' campaign with BBH, which you can read about in The Drum. Contact us anytime to continue the conversation about inclusion and to download the Stereotypes research report here.