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Dear Boss: 10 Things to Know About Arab American Employees

posted on: Aug 8, 2018

By: Cait O’Connor/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, once said, “I suppose that leadership at one time meant muscle; but today it means getting along with people.”

In order to get along with others, one must recognize and be respectful towards their rights and personal identities. For someone in a leadership position, this familiarity with employee needs and rights is imperative to maintaining office peace and productivity.

For employers with Arab employees, respect in this regard comes in the form of recognition of cultural and religious traditions, a few of which are listed below. Some of these traits apply only to Muslims, as they are upheld in the Pillars of Islam. While the catagories of “Arab” and “Muslim” are often conflated, not all Arabs are Muslims. A majority of Arab Americans, in fact, are Christian. It is important to recognize this fact, and to understand that these characteristics cannot apply to all Muslims or Arabs. They represent a generalization of common practices and traits that may be otherwise overlooked or dismissed by those in power.

1. The Right to Prayer

Prayer is critical for those who follow Islam. Salat, or daily prayer, must be completed five times a day at roughly set intervals. Some may be more rigid about scheduling than others, but it is important for all believers to fit these meaningful moments of prayer into their working lives.

The following is a general schedule for prayer throughout the day:

  • Salat al-fajr: dawn, before sunrise
  • Salat al-zuhr: midday, after the sun passes its highest
  • Salat al-‘asr: the late part of the afternoon
  • Salat al-maghrib: just after sunset
  • Salat al-‘isha: between sunset and midnight

In an office setting, Muslims need between 1-3 prayer times, depending on the time of year. Prayer takes between 10-15 minutes, beginning with a short ritual cleaning. Prayer can usually be accomplished during designated (and required) lunch and coffee breaks, but be mindful that extra time may be needed.

If a designated prayer room is not available in the office, the employee deserves access to a quiet, separate area in which to pray. Try to reserve this space ahead of time to prevent awkwardness and wasted time hunting down suitable locations. If necessary, fellow employees should be advised to be respectful of the fact that the space will serve an alternate purpose at certain times.

Be careful not to call or interrupt Muslim employees during prayer. In most cases, they will not stop their prayer to address calls, so employers should never interrupt with the expectation that they will do so. Each prayer has a designated length that should not be shortened. Do not take the continuation of prayer as a sign of offence or indifference-it is a required and sacred practice.

While Muslim employees will probably work their individual prayer schedule around obligatory office meetings, conferences, and other events, employers must be cognizant of some employees’ need to excuse themselves at certain times. Meeting times should be announced in advance to avoid this. 

The break that Muslims take during the work day is not self-indulgent and should not be interpreted as a sign of laziness or evasion of work. The American working mindset of maximum efficiency, in which breaks are made either brief or nonexistent, may struggle to understand the religious and personal value of short breaks for prayer. This relates to the next potential difference…

2. Perceptions of Time

Generally, Arab culture is less time-focused than American culture. More informal scheduling is preferred and expected, so don’t be offended if employees seem somewhat flexible or non-committal about meetings and events. As a general rule, the further in advance something is planned, the less likely it is to go through on time.

To respect this more relaxed attitude, avoid checking the time during meetings or conversations. This is usually perceived as rude, even if time seems urgent. For Arabs, meaningful interaction is more important than time concerns.

It is natural in the Arab world to begin any meeting with general conversation over coffee or tea to get to know business partners. Relationships come first, while business is second.

3. Common Courtesy

Arabs are very tactile, meaning they are inclined to touch when greeting or speaking as a way of showing connection and sincerity. Arab culture in general is founded upon politeness and “saving face.” Just because someone does not express their offense or discontent outright does not mean they were not disturbed by certain actions.

Arabs strongly believe that everyone deserves to be treated with equal respect, and they demonstrate this in their desire to greet all workers individually and get to know them sincerely.

Do not interpret this as strange or overbearing-embrace the depth of this politeness that is less common in American culture.

4. Social Interactions

Because of the high value placed on establishing positive social relations with everyone, Arab employees will be uncomfortable engaging in office gossip. Politeness is highly valued, so private moments of office gossip may make Muslim employees very uncomfortable and offended. They may be inclined to avoid these kinds of slandering and back-biting interactions at all costs, strongly preferring to keep on good terms with everyone in the office. Gossiping is thought to detract from one’s personal honor.

Tips: Do not corner Arab American employees into situations in which they may be encouraged to speak badly about others. Do not stigmatize or mock their refusal to participate in office gossip. This is not a sign of disengagement or disinterest, but merely a concern for politeness and dignity for all. Furthermore, do not expect Arab American employees to give a completely critical assessment of fellow employees in their peer review. This will be personally hard for Arab American employees to execute.


Instead, keep assessments impartial and objective, focused on work quality rather than personal accomplishment. Keep conversations pleasant, concerned with topics other than personal gossip. This might be a positive change for the office environment as a whole, not just for the sake of its Arab American members.

5. Mixing of Genders

Cultural differences also account for the gender divides that may make some employees uncomfortable working with members of the opposite gender. They may find it awkward to shake hands, work alone or in the same group, or participate in co-ed meetings or activities. This is based on a desire for modesty and the avoidance of temptation.

What to do:

  • Wait for Muslim employees to make the first move in shaking hands
    • Some may not feel comfortable doing so; don’t initiate this greeting if the other person does not extend their hand
  • Physical greetings (as in hugging or kissing of the cheek) should be avoided, especially with employees of the opposite gender
  • If employees of different genders must work together, attempt to make the interaction as comfortable as possible by offering to leave doors open, rearrange seating to increase respectfulness, and incorporate more employees to make the interaction less personal
  • Never assume that a female Muslim’s deference to men indicates a lack of competitiveness–she is just as eager for that promotion as her male counterparts

6. Clothing and Personal Style

Be respectful of women’s right to wear the hijab, one of the most common sources of the discrimination against Muslim women in the Western world. The wearing of the hijab is largely a personal choice and is in no way indicative of personal limitations or restrictions to work. The hijab itself, although commonly perceived otherwise, does not inhibit work performance or capability. 

Muslim men may choose to grow beards, in accordance with the Hadith. Address this directly if it is a concern, being respectful of traditions and beliefs.

In general, these style choices ought to remain completely irrelevant to the workflow of the office. If they do conflict with the required dress code, these requirements and changes should be openly discussed and made obvious to all employees. Above all, remain respectful of the need for modesty in dress.

7. Fasting

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslim employees must fast from sun-up till sun-down. Muslims rise early in the morning to eat a small meal before the sun rises, and they break their day-long fast with an iftar dinner after sunset. This ritual fasting has several implications for Muslim workers in an office setting that employers would be right to recognize and respect.

Fasting is only the surface-level obligation of this holiday. This is a highly spiritual time in the Islamic faith, a period in which Muslims are encouraged to abstain from personal misdeeds and pursue spiritual and emotional growth and maturity.

However, bosses should be mindful of the mental toll that fasting can take on a person. Employees may generally be more low-energy, experiencing nausea, sensitivity to smell, headaches, and irritability. Muslims are cognizant of these effects, embracing them and attempting to better themselves by pushing through them to maintain work performance. A recognition of this sacrifice is certainly not out of line.

On the other hand, some Muslim employees may find this to be their most productive time of the year! Fasting has been said to provide mental clarity, while the denial of coffee breaks means less time is wasted. This is generally a period of focus and self-reflection that may even boost office productivity.

The month of Ramadan is highly anticipated, comparable to the celebration and emotion of the Christmas holiday. The post-fast meal is an important family affair. Employees should not expect to work or respond to work concerns during this time. Family, as elaborated on more deeply, later on, is among the most important aspects of Islam, and of Arab culture as a whole.

Be aware that, especially during the last 10 days of the month (considered the holiest period) employees may ask to adjust their work schedules.

To take the extra step in making Muslim (and Arab) employees feel included and in livening up the office as a whole, consider hosting an Iftar dinner in celebration of the holiday!

8. Food Serving

At office gatherings, employers should be mindful that Muslims do not eat pork. When serving meat, ensure that it is prepared according to halal guidelines so that all office members may enjoy it. Do not offer alcohol to Muslim employees, and be sure to have non-alcoholic options on offer at social gatherings.

In Arab culture, food is automatically shared. If one person is eating, it is assumed that they will offer their food to others around them. It would be very rude to deny this offer to others and to eat privately. In recognition of this common practice, it would be considerate, as the boss, to offer food to coworkers. This might be a great way to open dialogue and build relationships as well. Your employees will undoubtedly be eager to share their food with you.

9. Politeness and Accepting Offers

In the Arab world, common courtesy dictates that you should refuse food or drink after the first offering. After the first refusal, the host will offer again. This exchange generally happens 2-3 times as a matter of social etiquette before the person finally accepts the offer. It is polite to decline at first, and likewise, it is also polite to keep insisting that the person accept the offer. This is a cultural tendency that is different in America, but important to keep in mind. Do not immediately end your offer of food or drink after your employee declines it. They are probably doing so out of politeness and modesty toward you. Don’t let them go empty-handed; insist that they have some, and they will probably be happy to do so.

10. Family

Arabs are hard workers. Their determination and commitment are a great asset to any office. Many will not be inclined to take days off or indulge in extended breaks, but family is the exception to that rule. As the cornerstones of Arab society and culture, family ties and obligations must be upheld. Employees will need to take time off to travel, perhaps at random times during the year, to celebrate birthdays, funerals, reunions, graduations, weddings, or other significant occasions.

This a critical part of Arab culture that employees will be hard-pressed to give up. Understanding this concept and being lenient about working schedules will make the sometimes uncomfortable situations easier for everyone involved. Many employees will both want and need to be with their loved ones at certain times of the year, and it is important to respect this desire in order to maintain a healthy and respectful work environment.