Anti-Muslim sentiment rears its ugly head in the workplace

With the recent resurgence of anti-Muslim attitudes surrounding the proposed mosque building near Ground Zero, it’s not surprising that claims of discrimination against Muslim workers are growing, too. Unfortunately, it seems that the lessons learned - and tolerance established – after the 9/11 attacks are quickly eroding.

In an article, “Muslims face growing bias in the workplace,” an attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shares how dire the situation is:

“There is hatred, an open hatred, and a lack of tolerance for people who are Muslim,” says Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the Phoenix district office of the EEOC. “I think the mosque in Manhattan seems to be a flashpoint, but it taps into feelings that preceded it.”

And the numbers underscore that point. According to EEOC figures, claims of bias against Muslims in the workplace rose to 1,490 last year from 1,304 in 2008 (compared to 697 claims in 2004). Even more alarming, last year’s total was higher than in the year after the 9/11 event, when claims amounted to 1,463.

Bottom line: Religious discrimination is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which also bans workplace discrimination based on sex, national origin, race and color. More specifically, it requires employers to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of an employee or prospective employee, as long as it doesn’t pose an undue hardship for the business.

Although every situation is unique, easy accommodations that shouldn’t pose an “undue hardship” for most employers include:

• Variations to your dress or grooming code (unless it poses a safety hazard) to allow for religious garb, like a hijab
• Scheduling work activities around an employee’s religious needs
• Permitting voluntary job swaps
• Reassigning an employee
• Excusing employees from workplace programs that conflict with their religious beliefs
• Allowing the use of an empty room for prayer during break times

Beyond a collaborative approach toward workplace accommodations, it’s essential that you include diversity awareness and training in your anti-harassment initiatives.

Be sure to state in all written applications, postings and other materials that your company does not discriminate on the basis of religion when it comes to hiring, promotions, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment.

Keep in mind, too, that if you ever need to defend a harassment claim (religious or otherwise), your first line of defense will be showing that your company took measures to prevent it. To reinforce your anti-harassment and discrimination position, you should train your managers and supervisors on proper conduct with their employees and the importance of not retaliating against an employee who expresses concerns.

You should also distribute an anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure that expresses your stance against unlawful harassment and your zero tolerance for threats, taunts and any other inappropriate behavior.

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