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As the Muslim workforce grows, so does the need for employers to understand and accomodate these employees' religious obligations.
Lobna “Luby” Ismail awoke before dawn in her hotel room near Orlando, Fla., knelt on the floor and bowed low in the direction of Mecca to say her morning prayers. She finished dressing, wrapped her Muslim head scarf, or hijab, snugly around her dark features and, after a light meal, headed off to lead a cultural training session at Walt Disney World Resort.
Ismail sat in silence in the front of the room while the trainees, all of them Disney World employees, arrived. She then scrawled a message on the blackboard: “The first part of this session will be nonverbal, OK?”
As the students nodded in agreement, she wrote another message asking the trainees to share with their training partners, in writing, some assumptions that society—or the class members themselves—might make about a woman who looked and dressed like she did. Responses ranged from “submissive” and “uneducated” to “foreign” and “someone who is not my friend.”
Ismail then broke the silence by proclaiming in perfect English that she is a born-and-bred American who was the pitcher for her ninth-grade softball team and student body president in high school and who today is a wife and business owner.
“People don’t realize that many Muslims in this country are American,” says Ismail, a partner in Connecting Cultures, a Silver Spring, Md.-based consulting firm that specializes in diversity training.
Ismail is one of many advocates engaged in a burgeoning campaign to pierce the stereotypes about Islam and its followers, called Muslims. These advocates want to help employers make their workplaces more comfortable for the country’s growing numbers of Muslims, who may be of any race or from any part of the world.
A Growing Force
The U.S. government does not collect census data on religion, so there is no official count of how many Muslims are in the United States or how their numbers have grown.
According to the American Muslim Council, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., there are about 6 million Muslims in the country today. The council has no data on the number of Muslims in the workplace but it estimates that the overall Muslim population has jumped by 1 million since 1995. That growth rate—coupled with a rising tide of religious accommodation complaints from Muslims—suggests that the Muslim workforce is growing and is increasingly vocal, experts say.
According to a 1999 survey conducted by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, based in New York, 76.5 percent of Muslim respondents were at least somewhat troubled by religious bias at work—the highest rate of concern for any of the religious groups surveyed, including Buddhists, Hindus or Jews. And 27 percent of Muslims said they had run into discrimination personally or knew other Muslims who had—second only to Hindus at 32 percent.
The study, which focused on employees who are members of minority religions, also shows that 63.7 percent of Muslim respondents felt very comfortable at their workplaces. But that means more than one-third of respondents were not comfortable—a rate that Muslim advocacy groups say is too high.
Experts say that, if anything, the Tanenbaum study shows that employers still are coming to grips with religious accommodation and that acceptance of Muslims’ strict religious code is an important test of employers’ commitment to diversity.
“All it takes is being aware of these issues and a willingness to deal with them,” says Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a leading Muslim support group that mediates workplace complaints. “We haven’t yet come across a situation that can’t be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.”
Accommodation: It’s the Law
The challenge for human resource professionals is how to accommodate Islamic religious practices that, to many employers, seem out of place at work.
For example, Muslims’ hallmark head scarves, skull caps, turbans and beards may clash with uniforms or the crisp office attire that portrays a company’s image. Muslims also pray several times a day and must attend Friday midday services, which can disrupt schedules and work flow. Some Muslims might avoid sustained eye contact or decline to shake hands with members of the opposite sex, practices that might be viewed by other employees as impolite or even biased in today’s workplace culture, where body language can be a vital part of business communication.
“We had the case of a [Muslim] doctor who was called for a job interview across the country,” Hooper recalls. “The employer had arranged for his air fare, the rental car—the whole thing.” When the doctor informed his prospective employer that he refrains from shaking hands with women, the employer called him back and told him the interview was off, Hooper says.
Experts point out that Muslim behavior and dress aren’t attempts to flout workplace policies but are based on strict Islamic tenets of modesty and respect. Muslim advocacy groups, such as CAIR, say that one of their biggest tasks is explaining those tenets to employers and correcting false impressions of Islam.
But the groups say they also spend a lot of time reminding businesses that, under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, religious accommodation isn’t optional. The law requires employers to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs unless the accommodation poses “undue hardship,” which generally is measured by the arrangement’s cost. For example, suppose you have to hire a temporary worker to replace an employee who is absent for religious reasons. If you’re paying top dollar for the temp and you have to do it often, you can probably claim undue hardship.
And what constitutes a “sincerely held belief”? The answer can depend on who is talking. For example, some Muslims say that certain practices, such as wearing beards or avoiding touching or making eye contact with members of the opposite sex, are customs, not religious requirements. Other Muslims look on these practices as mandated by their religion. Legally, it doesn’t matter. If it’s the employee’s sincerely held religious belief, the employer has to accommodate it, according to guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (For more information on accommodating employees’ religious requests, see Religion in the Workplace, December, 1998 issue of HR Magazine.)
Muslims’ Complaints Rise
Increasingly, Muslims’ struggle for acceptance in the workplace is framed in terms of employee complaints. At the EEOC, Muslims’ share of total religious discrimination complaints rose from 12 percent in 1992 to 15.5 percent in 1999. Those figures don’t count other complaints that never get as far as the EEOC but that instead are mediated by Muslim groups. At many companies, accommodations have resulted from agreements with CAIR after rugged play in the media.
Most of the complaints CAIR receives are lodged against supervisors who don’t allow prayer breaks or who say that company dress codes prohibit women from wearing head scarves. The problem, Hooper says, usually is not corporate policies but individual supervisors’ lack of knowledge about religions and religious accommodation law. Typically, once a dispute arises, companies’ executives accommodate the employees and end up apologizing for supervisors who were not aware of the firms’ accommodation policies, CAIR officials say.
“Employers have to stop making these innocent mistakes—they have to know more,” says Ismail. “Asking a Muslim woman to remove her head scarf is like asking a woman to take off her blouse.”
Understanding also works both ways. Some employers claim that Muslim workers take prayer breaks or change from business dress to Muslim attire without notice. Muslim advocacy groups agree that there is work to be done on both sides.
For example, while CAIR publishes a detailed guide for employers on how to accommodate Muslim practices and garb in the workplace, neither CAIR nor the American Muslim Council sponsors forums or seminars to help employers anticipate the more complex accommodation issues before they boil over. “We could do more in that area,” says CAIR spokesman Ismail Royer. On the other hand, with a caseload of about 50 complaints a month, CAIR is forced to spend most of its time dousing brush fires.
“None of these problems is insurmountable in terms of undue hardship,” Hooper says of Muslim accommodation issues. “I mean, you have Sikhs wearing turbans, Amish women wearing bonnets, Orthodox Jewish women wearing scarves or covers over their hair. I think people just have to realize that American society is becoming more diverse. Any employer who doesn’t deal with that is going to be left behind.”
Juggling Space and Schedules
Some employers are ahead of the curve when it comes to accommodating Muslims. For example, Muslim employees of the District of Columbia government can take a two-hour lunch break on Fridays to attend prayer services, then make up the time by working an extra hour on another day.
The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in Columbus provides space for prayer or religious conversations, “but, as a public sector organization, we can’t overtly support a particular religion, so the conversations have to be open for anyone to participate,” says HR director Lisa Willis-Johnson, SPHR, who also chairs the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Diversity Committee.
The commission has featured the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (which begins in late November this year) in one of its employee newsletters and hosts brown-bag lunches at which workers exchange information about their various faiths.
Disney World managers are trained to juggle schedules for prayer time and religious holidays, and the company provides prayer rooms for staff as well as guests.
When they noticed the swelling population of Muslims in central Florida, Disney World executives invited Ismail to conduct her training program as part of a company diversity program called RAVE, which stands for Respect, Appreciate and value Everyone. Disney also opened the training session to the public.
At Disney World, where employees are called “cast members,” spokesperson Rena Callahan acknowledges that some Muslim employees have been reassigned away from public view “because some cast members wear costumes, and we have to consider the scene. In some cases, a head scarf wouldn’t work. … But this is a huge company with 55,000 cast members, the largest single-site employer in the United States, so there are lots of opportunities” for placing employees in other jobs, Callahan says.
As Disney World’s example shows, employers have some leeway when accommodating requests. For example, you don’t have to keep a Muslim woman who wears a hijab at your customer service desk if she’s willing to take another position at equal or higher pay, according to EEOC guidelines. If the woman declines your offer of another position out of the public eye and says she wants to keep her current job, you can’t require her to change her attire unless you can prove—with real numbers and to the EEOC’s satisfaction—that her garb is causing you to lose customers and money.
A Lesson in Accommodation
One employer who turned down a Muslim woman’s request to wear a hijab at work advises other employers to learn how to craft accommodations.
In a 1996 case that was highly publicized in the Washington, D.C., area, CAIR intervened on behalf of a Muslim woman who was hired as a desk clerk at a Quality Inn in Falls Church, Va., but was told she couldn’t wear her head scarf on the job. The woman wasn’t wearing the scarf when she was interviewed for the position but returned to the hotel before she was scheduled to start the job and requested the accommodation, according to Phillip Kirby, vice president of F. C. Management Co., which operates the inn.
The request was a first for the business. Kirby’s hotels already employed a number of Muslims who had never made special requests. When the manager on duty refused her request, the woman complained to CAIR. Kirby says he declined CAIR’s request for accommodation because he feared negative customer reaction to the Muslim garb. But a media flap ensued as the woman’s story got out. After obtaining legal advice, Kirby apologized publicly and offered to hire the woman and accommodate her request, but she declined the job offer.
“I ran into difficulty because I wasn’t up to snuff enough to even know what I had to accommodate,” Kirby says today. “How people can hook everything up to religion is beyond me. But it’s wise to know what you know, and it’s wise to know what you don’t know. I know that one now.”
Kirby now realizes that he could have offered the woman another position at equal or higher pay. But he is among the employers who, confronted with accommodation requests, wonder where to draw the line.
“The burden is on the employer to show that an accommodation poses an undue hardship—that’s where you draw the line,” says EEOC spokesman David Grinberg. “It’s not always a simple matter. That’s why we have technical guidance, training programs and lawyers on hand to provide assistance when necessary.
“If a frivolous charge is filed, the case will be dismissed,” Grinberg says. “Keep in mind that only in a small minority of cases is there a finding of discrimination.”
Marc Adams is a Winchester, Va.-based journalist specializing in business, finance and legal affairs. His 34-year career as a writer and editor has included positions as a national correspondent for United Press International and as a senior business writer for The Washington Times . He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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