Is Your Firm Culture Inclusive Enough to Accommodate Ramadan?

The concept of “inclusion” often gets flattened into a shorthand for things like the language firms use around gender or sponsoring firm events that do not take place at country clubs — both very important considerations, by the way — but true inclusion means so much more.

We were struck by this recent Law.com International feature on the experiences of Muslim lawyers who fast every day from dawn to sunset during Ramadan, the most sacred month of the year for Muslims, which began on April 1. While Ramadan is an intensely spiritual time, it is also a joyful time in which families gather at night to break their fast, and mark the end of the month with a three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast.

Honoring this religious observance can be a challenge for Muslim lawyers for a few reasons. First, of course, it is physically strenuous to maintain a typical work schedule while fasting from food and water. When you are the only person in your office keeping to this regimen, it can be difficult when colleagues don’t understand why your energy level or attention span might be different than usual. And then there is the unwanted attention: Some attorneys report dealing with inappropriate or even teasing comments — “You’re really feeling it today, aren’t you?” or ignorant questions — “You really can’t even have a sip of water?”

Truly inclusive firm cultures make space for people to bring their whole selves to work, and in the case of Muslim attorneys, that means recognizing needs during Ramadan and taking steps to support these attorneys in their observance of a significant aspect of their faith. Here’s how to handle this gracefully:

Educate yourself. Lawyers famously dread uttering those three little words — “I don’t know” — they think demonstrate weakness, but if Islam or Ramadan in particular is outside your experience, take responsibility for learning about it. Even as you become more knowledgeable, understand that, like other major faiths, Islam is interpreted in different ways across cultures and geography. Don’t make assumptions about how your Muslim colleagues will or will not be observing Ramadan.

Be thoughtful in planning events during Ramadan. Nobody wants to be a “token” anything, and it shouldn’t be on Muslim lawyers to explain why some arrangements won’t work for them. That’s why it’s the responsibility of marketers and firm leaders to be knowledgeable and thoughtful enough to anticipate issues that might arise when planning events during this month. For instance, hosting a client drinks event in a bar could make some Muslim lawyers (or Muslim clients, for that matter) uncomfortable. Is there another place you could host it? Pay attention too to the time of day when scheduling.

Remember that accommodations designed for some usually end up making things better for everybody. This is known as the “curb-cut effect.” The work of disability advocates in California led to the widespread adoption of sloping curbs to make sidewalks more accessible to people who use wheelchairs. But removing steps from intersections has benefitted most pedestrians, including parents pushing strollers, kids on bikes, workers pushing heavy carts from trucks to storefronts, business travelers rolling suitcases and more. Making accommodations to support Muslim lawyers during Ramadan — such as embracing flexible scheduling across the firm — will help everyone navigate the tensions between their professional and private lives, and lead to a more inclusive culture overall.