Online sidebar: Diversity and the Bottom Line

By Robert J. Grossman Mar 1, 2011
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Here are some suggestions to consider in improving the workplace environment for Muslim workers:

Know the basic workplace issues linked to Islam. They are daily prayers; clothing; religious holidays; the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia; and the month of fasting for Ramadan. The Council on American-Islamic Relations specializes in workplace training and its lawyers strive to mediate and educate on these issues rather than litigate complaints, says Taneeza Islam, civil rights director of the council in Minneapolis.

Examine your accommodation policy critically. Make sure it’s fair and nonjudgmental. “I have been stunned by some policies, including one at a Fortune 100 company that requires a worker seeking accommodation to fill out a form and have it approved by clergy,” says Georgette Bennett, president and founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York City and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel.

“The employer doesn’t have to provide an accommodation if it presents an undue burden, but the burden can’t be hypothetical,” says P. David Lopez, general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C. “Facts must be presented to sustain undue hardship.”

Create an anti-harassment policy. Provide examples. Investigate promptly, and act appropriately. Set up a grievance process. “Sometimes employers get burned by horseplay among workers that goes too far,” Lopez says. ”It’s bullying, and employers need to take it seriously.”

Provide training and education. Managers should learn about Islam, understand employers’ responsibility to make reasonable accommodations and take the company’s diversity policy seriously. Bennett cites a company that created a prayer room for all employees to use—only to be confronted by Christians complaining that Muslims were monopolizing the space. “Had they known that Muslims are required to pray five times a day, they would have understood. It’s all about contact and communication,” she says.

Blend some humor into your education programs, advises Ameena Jandali, content director for the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, Calif.

Emphasize self-control in interpersonal relationships. “We have those irrational tapes in our head—you can’t erase them,” says Lobna “Luby” Ismail, president of Connecting Cultures LLC in Silver Spring, Md. “But when you’re working side by side, you’ve got to push pause on the tape. Keeping it running may cause you to discriminate or may lead to a lawsuit.”

Be approachable, flexible and reasonable. If an employee comes to you and requests accommodation, ask for suggestions. Be flexible, advises attorney Sheeva J. Ghassemi-Vanni at Fenwick & West LLP: “If you have a ‘no facial hair’ policy and have authorized exceptions, a reasonable religious accommodation would be to allow it for religious reasons. If you think you may have to deny a request for undue hardship, get advice from counsel first.”

Think of diversity as a leadership issue. HR professionals have to “get past ‘Let’s accommodate religion’ as a problem matter, to ‘Let’s make people feel a part of this place,’ ” says Douglas Hicks, professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia and author of Religion and the Workplace (Cambridge University Press, 2003). “Creating a culture where people are not marginalized requires you to move beyond accommodation and nondiscrimination.”

Don’t pretend that religion is not an issue. You don’t want to force Muslims to be nonobservant at work. “Embrace them, and do so officially,” urges Kent Johnson, Texas Instruments’ senior counsel. Consider starting an employee group. And stick to your guns if you experience pushback from other employees.

Put the “D”-word on the back burner. At Texas Instruments, Terry Howard, director of diversity and inclusion, has been moving away from large-scale sensitivity training and refrains from using the word “diversity.”

Instead, he has rebranded diversity as an aspect of leadership and defines himself as a coach that executives can turn to. Diversity conferences became “routine, bye-bye, see-you-next-year events. Instead, three years ago, we introduced leadership learning labs,” Howard says. Senior leaders build content from these twice-yearly sessions into their action plans.

Link inclusion and reducing discrimination to the bottom line. Frequently, employers justify funding diversity work as a way to avoid litigation, but that misses an important point, Bennett says. “Religious accommodation and creating a religiously inclusive workforce has a measureable impact on turnover costs, productivity and marketing success. Metrics that would strengthen the case are challenging to develop but worth the effort,” she notes. “For example, at American Express, part of a manager’s evaluation is based on the extent that he or she has contributed to reducing perceptions of discrimination. It’s factored in and weighed in assessing performance.”

Put yourself in their shoes. If you have a group pizza party, one pizza without pepperoni goes a long way, advises attorney Adil Khan of Greenberg Traurig LLP.

The author, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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