How to Support Employees Who Find Their Motivation in Faith, Not Work

“As a Muslim student, I can’t expect perfection at university or my future employer, but I do expect them to try,” says Zaynab Ahmed, a final year student at law at Oxford University, describing how important it is for Muslims. feel heard and valued in an organization.

While most employers shout about their credentials as diverse and inclusive organisations, there is often misunderstanding as to what inclusion means for Muslim staff who may have a different sense of ‘purpose’ at work.

Many employees, especially younger ones, look to employers to give them a sense of doing good in the world and often focus on measures of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) progress. For Muslims – as for any practicing believer in any God – purpose is not necessarily sought in work: it is often spiritual. So for many, rather than finding purpose in work, they seek to express their faith in their professional lives.

For a corporate lawyer, true inclusion would mean feeling comfortable expressing her Muslim faith fully at work. This is not the case at the moment: “I felt much more ‘altered’ in the world of work than I ever did in university,” she says. “For example, at work [events]I feel more peer pressure to drink alcohol, and my glass of coke really stands out among the many glasses of wine.

“My manager is great; she is accommodating too but that [job] does not correspond to the hereafter or to our values. There’s not much that could keep me here,” she said. The concept of inheritance is central to the Islamic tradition. For Muslims, their sense of purpose centers on the pleasure of God and the legacy they will leave in this world. There is an important connection between their present life and how they will respond to God in the future.

“The two elements of leaving a spiritual legacy as Muslims and succeeding in our careers have often felt at odds with each other,” says Raihan Karim, director of The Legacy Project, a community-led initiative students which aims to help disadvantaged people. environments pursue their academic and professional goals. Although TLP’s counseling is for people of all faiths, topics such as legacy through a spiritual and professional lens are considered together.

Many professionals may struggle to explain religious observances. It’s not always easy for staff to take five minutes in the middle of the day for prayer or to say they can’t attend an evening meeting because it’s Ramadan and the timing doesn’t match. at iftar, the breaking of the fast.

One solution for employers is to make all staff aware of religion-related priorities. Last year, two global senior partners at law firm Clifford Chance sent a Ramadan Kareem (Blessed Ramadan) email to all staff outlining ways to support fellow Muslims and released a video on how workers celebrate Ramadan.

“It opened the door to conversations with genuinely interested non-Muslim colleagues. It was lovely,” says Adilah Azil, a lawyer at the firm. “I even had a non-Muslim supervisor who, just after sunset, said, ‘I think it’s time for you to pray, don’t you?'”

The next step in inclusivity is to embed faith in corporate discourse. Currently, not feeling comfortable explaining one’s point of view from a religious point of view can be a hindrance for Muslims. If employees were given the opportunity to have meaningful discussions about faith, such discussions could be valuable in themselves, but also help Muslim co-workers feel “seen”.

“I have only been successful in my career because I feel comfortable in my faith at EY,” says Mudassar Chaudhry, Co-Chair of the Muslim Community (EYMC) at the accounting firm. He describes a pivotal moment for him when, when he was a 16-year-old intern at the company, a non-Muslim colleague showed him a prayer room. His welcoming attitude towards his faith led to his career there.

Mudassar Chaudhry, co-chairman of the EY Muslim Community, at his desk in his London office
Mudassar Chaudhry feels ‘comfortable’ in his faith at accounting and advisory firm EY © Charlie Bibby/FT

Indeed, inclusion efforts are most effective when applied consistently across the company and embedded in the language and actions of all employees. Last year, EYMC launched its first global Ramadan video featuring Muslim employees discussing what the holy month means to them and some of the company’s senior non-Muslim leaders. Mudassar’s inbox was flooded with surprised colleagues and Muslims interested in EY’s work.

Others use social media to share the experiences of Muslims at work. Content and Publishing Manager Zakir Hasan founded Day of Wrk to present a day in the life of underrepresented minorities and support those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hasan hopes the site will be a practical tool and “can change people’s luck by learning how to navigate and thrive in a place, without having people who look like them.”

Beyond these initiatives is the recognition that greater employer commitment to faith and spirituality is something important for many people of all faiths, not just Muslims, to feel comfortable in their faith and expressing their purpose at work.

There are also commercial advantages. As Peter ter Kulve, head of Unilever’s global homecare business, said: “We need to understand all of our customers and align our business with the long-term needs of our communities. We try to create a safe and respectful workplace for everyone so that we can hire all the talent possible. »

Securing career paths

Even before entering the world of work, Muslim students face challenges related to career choices. Affordability is a significant challenge. According to 2016 figures from the Muslim Council of Britain, some 50% of Muslim households in the UK face poverty. On top of that, for many Muslims, paying interest on a loan is considered inadmissible. The cost of college and the lack of interest-free or Sharia-compliant student loans create barriers to education for Muslim students. Organizations such as the Aziz Foundation support funding for masters for Muslims and offer 100 masters scholarships.

Universities may struggle to attract Muslim applicants to courses that are not vocational in nature, such as the arts. This is partly due to the reluctance to leave home: such aversion can be overcome if they study a subject like medicine.

But other factors can be problematic. Maryam Adam, a graphic design graduate and artist, struggled to find a course that complemented her faith. “Bare life drawing is a crucial part of many art classes, but for me it caused a spiritual conflict,” she says, noting that an art school refused to adjust the class for her, so she had to find an alternative program.

Some families of aspiring students have little direct experience of higher education and need reassurance. “I am the first single woman in my family to graduate from university and ‘halal’ (i.e. single, halal food) housing has really helped my family to accept me going to the university,” says Ayesha Ulhaq, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

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