In many workplaces, it's impolite to talk about religion. But in a nation that becomes more diverse every day, even the smallest company probably includes people of various religions, and when you work closely with others, it's natural to be curious about different practices.
Here are some basic facts:
Culturally Significant Dress
Muslim women dress modestly in public. The Koran prescribes no dress code, but some women cover their hair, neck and ears; others wear a veil and cover the entire body. Muslim men are also expected to dress simply, avoiding flashy colors, silk and gold chains.
Sikhs are expected to wear turbans, and Jewish men may wear yarmulkes (skullcaps). Both religions view head coverings as very important signs of observance.
Catholics and Christians of many denominations may wear a cross as a symbol of their faith. Jews may wear a Star of David or jewelry with the Hebrew word “chai,” meaning life.
Many Muslims pray five times a day, for approximately 10 minutes each time. They kneel on prayer rugs and must face the direction of Mecca. Some Muslims use a closed room for privacy; others seek a secluded corner of the workplace.
Many Christians consider Easter and Holy Week, including Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, to be the most important holidays of the year. On Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Good Friday, the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes.
For Jews, one important holiday that occurs around the same time as Easter is Passover. The eight-day holiday marks the exodus and freedom of the Israelites (Jewish slaves) from Egypt. Passover starts at sundown on the 15th day of the first month in the Jewish lunar calendar, which usually falls in March or April.
For Muslims, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan, is holy. Muslims practice sawm (fasting) for the entire month. They eat and drink nothing, including water, from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid al-Fitr (the “Breaking the Fast”). “My colleagues are very supportive during Ramadan,” says Wafaa Naggar, a Muslim who works in a New York office. “They try not to bring any goodies or plan any special events to make sure I can participate.”
For Hindus, Divali, the five-day “Festival of Light,” is a holy observance. Hindus across India celebrate differently, but Divali often is a time for cleaning house, illuminating every room in one's home and marking new beginnings in personal and business relationships. During Divali, observers often wear henna.
Eating and Drinking
You may have noticed some of your colleagues practicing different eating habits or rituals, particularly at certain times of the year. For example, during Passover, Jewish people observe the holiday with family meals and do not eat any leavened products, such as bread or pasta, which has been raised with yeast.
Year-round, Jews who keep kosher comply with laws set forth in the Torah. Kashrut rules prohibit eating flesh, organs, eggs or milk that come from forbidden animals. The rules allow eating permitted animals only if they were slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law and prohibit mixing meat and dairy products. Other laws cover food preparation and utensils. Jews who keep kosher may order special food during business meals or while traveling, or may refrain from eating with colleagues.
Because their church prohibits caffeine, Mormons don't drink coffee or tea. Some do not drink cola. Hindus do not eat meat. Some Buddhists don't eat meat, but others do, depending on their interpretation of Buddhism. Practicing Muslims don't eat pork or drink alcohol.
Other Observances and Beliefs
Some Jews observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. They may leave work early on Friday for this observance; they can't work on the Sabbath.
Seventh-Day Adventists also observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and can't work on the Sabbath.
Have you ever wondered why one colleague doesn't celebrate his birthday or another doesn't mention going to the doctor? Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate their own birthdays as that is considered a glorification of the individual, rather than the Creator, and Christian Scientists believe religion heals illness. Thus, adherents may choose prayer over medicine.
Read more about religion and your rights in the workplace.