Do I have to allow staff to take time off and work flexibly during Ramadan?

  • Equality & Diversity
A Muslim family enjoying an iftar meal during Ramadan
Gavin Scarr-Hall - Director of Health & Safety at Peninsula

Gavin Scarr Hall, Director of Health and Safety

(Last updated )

Later this month, many Muslims will be observing Ramadan. And if this includes any of your staff, be aware that they may struggle to manage their work commitments during this time…

Because from 22nd March until 21st April, Muslims who observe Ramadan will be fasting. In other words, they won’t be eating or drinking during daylight hours. Why? It’s a way to self-discipline and remind themselves to think of those less fortunate.

Ramadan is a time for members of the Islamic community to pray, reflect and spend time with loved ones. So, you may need to be more accommodating of requests for time off and flexible working than usual. Otherwise, you could find yourself at risk of religious discrimination.

To help you prepare to navigate any potential issues that could come up, here’s what you need to know ahead of Ramadan…

Do staff have a legal right to take time off for religious celebration?

If your employee’s contract entitles them to take paid leave for religious holidays, like Christmas and Easter, they would have a legal right to take paid leave for religious celebrations. But if it’s not in the contract, there’s no legal obligation for you to give staff the time off.

However, you should try to accommodate any requests. If your employee is requesting to take annual leave, you should only refuse this for a serious business reason (and we’ll get to that later.) You could also allow them to take unpaid leave.

If you unreasonably refuse the request, your employee could accuse you of discriminating against them because of their religion.

What if I get bombarded with holiday requests?

It might be that you see an increase in holiday requests around Ramadan, especially at the end of it because that’s when many Muslims will celebrate the festival Eid.

And because Easter falls around the same time, you may also have staff wanting to take more time off around the bank holiday.

This could make things tricky for you because you don’t want to be left short-staffed.

What you should do is follow the rules you usually would for managing leave requests, which should be laid out in your holiday policy. You may have a first-come first-serve rule or a cap on how many people can be on annual leave at any given time.

When you let your staff know the rules for putting in leave requests in advance, they’ll be less likely to accuse you of being unfair if you have to reject their request.

Wait, does that mean I could get in trouble for refusing a holiday request?

If your worker asks for time off to observe a religious celebration and you refuse without a fair reason, they could accuse you of religious discrimination.

That’s why it’s best to have a serious reason for refusing the request, like your business is at minimum capacity and would suffer if your employee can’t work. But if the leave is not detrimental to the business, it may be safer to temporarily relax any maximum caps on annual leave for staff who want time off for religious observance.

If you have to refuse a request, you should explain why to your employee and try to find an alternative or compromise if you can.

You will also need to provide notice if you have to cancel someone’s pre-booked leave. This notice period should be as long as the leave they’re asking for.

When you follow the above steps, you show you’re being fair and acting in line with procedure. This will help reduce the risk of your employee thinking you’re treating them unfairly because of their religion.

I’d be understaffed if I accepted every request – what can I do?

You can decline annual leave requests if it means you couldn’t meet your business needs. Again, you would have to follow the rules in your policy for managing leave requests.

Being understaffed is a fair reason to refuse a leave request, so you would be able to say no.

However, if you do have to reject your employee’s request, you should try to offer them an alternative. It might be that you compromise on changing their work routine. So, you could allow them to temporarily:

  • start work earlier/later so they can leave earlier/later
  • take a break earlier or later in the day
  • take longer and/or more regular breaks throughout the day
  • work from home 
  • split their time between your workplace and home

If you have a large number of observing employees who want time off at the same time, as a last resort you could consider closing your business for a short period. But bear in mind that if you close voluntarily, you will still need to give staff full pay while you’re closed.

Alternatively, if you choose to close, you could ask your staff to take the days out of their holiday allowance. You can enforce this as long as you give twice as much notice for however many days you’re asking them to take off. For example, you must give two days’ notice for one day of leave.

If my employee wants to change their working pattern, do I have to accept?

When employees are getting up early and staying up late to eat and pray, they’re probably going to be exhausted during their normal working hours. So, they may make a flexible working request to change their hours or work from home temporarily.

Employees have a legal right to request flexible working if they’ve worked for you continuously for at least 26 weeks. You shouldn’t treat a flexible working request for a religious reason any differently than a request for another reason.

You can still refuse a flexible working request by law, but only for one of the following eight reasons:

  • It costs too much. 
  • It’s not possible to reorganise the employee’s work with other staff. 
  • You’re not able to recruit more staff.
  • The quality of work will suffer.
  • Performance will suffer.
  • The business will struggle to meet customer demand.
  • Structural changes might make it difficult or impossible to work flexibly.
  • There’s not enough work to do.

You also need to have evidence to back it up. But while you can legally refuse a request for one of the above reasons, it may be more practical for you to accept it. Because your worker may be running on less sleep and food, they might struggle to perform at their best. So, allowing them to work flexibly may help them get the rest they need to look after themselves and perform better.

Not to mention, your employee may see your rejection of their request as religious discrimination. That’s why it’s vital to communicate and be as reasonable about flexibility as possible.

How can I be a supportive employer for my staff during Ramadan?

As an employer, you have a duty of care. And if you have staff observing Ramadan, you need to take steps to make sure they stay as healthy and happy as possible.

This might not only mean making adjustments to your employee’s work routine, but also your workplace in general.

You’ll need to make sure all your staff are respectful and understanding of those who observe Ramadan, so educating them is key. There are lots of ways you can do this; from uploading a calendar of religious days to your staff intranet to sending out information via email.

You could also introduce a policy on religious holidays if you don’t already have one, to help manage staff expectations. It also saves you running the risk of acting inconsistently or unfairly when all your rules are in one place.

Taking steps to be a supportive and inclusive employer will help you avoid the risk of discrimination. So, to learn more ways to support your staff during Ramadan, click here. Or, to get advice from an expert call 0800 029 4384 today.

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