Following Paris Attacks: How to Balance Workplace Respect for Muslims with Vigilance

By Dana Wilkie Nov 17, 2015
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Typically, experts say, terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists—like the recent bombings and shootings in Paris—incite some employees to question, distrust, harass and retaliate against Muslim co-workers. It’s an employer’s job to quash that sort of discr​iminatory behavior.

Yet employers can find themselves in a bind as they try not to paint Muslims with a broad brush while at the same time remain on the lookout for suspicious behavior. Reconciling those two priorities can be tricky, especially since it can be human nature for people to be wary of individuals who look like some of the terrorists implicated in the Paris attacks that killed more than 130 people and injured hundreds more, experts say.

Whenever something like this happens in the world, we see an increase in taunting and harassment of Muslims in the workplace, or [of] people who are perceived as Muslims,” said Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). 

But the focus needs to be on behavior, not appearance or background, he said. “If someone is talking about support for criminal activity, you should have a conversation with them,” he explained. “If they show interest in a [terrorist] group, I think a call to law enforcement is warranted. Base that call squarely on actual behavior, on things that were said, not on a person’s religious or ethnic background.” 

How should managers or HR professionals respond if they hear an employee sympathize with terrorists or terrorist attacks, or if they see a worker display other suspicious behavior? Is the manager obliged to say something to authorities? And how does a manager do that without inviting a discrimination lawsuit? 

“These issues are very touchy,” said Hope Eastman, senior partner and employment lawyer at Paley Rothman LLC in Bethesda, Md. “Most Muslims aren’t into [violence], but how do you distinguish between a terrorist and a Muslim who looks like a terrorist? That’s the really hard part.” 

ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris, is a terrorist group led mainly by extremist Sunni Muslims from Iraq and Syria. Although the group has been condemned by the mainstream Muslim community, ISIS claims religious, military and political authority over Muslims across the world. ISIS follows an extremist interpretation of the Koran and promotes violence, sexual slavery for women and a return to what it calls “pure Islam.” 

Eastman noted that some of the Paris terrorists were French and Belgian nationals, and “you wouldn’t have caught them” simply by being on the lookout for young, Middle-Eastern men who fit the conventional profile of an ISIS terrorist. That’s why it’s important to focus on suspicious behavior rather than appearance.

However, she noted, it can be difficult to define suspicious behavior. “What employers need is more guidance from people who are national security experts who look for suspicious behaviors. Someone handing out [radical] Islamic literature is probably a pretty good [suspect], but beyond that, [employers] can’t really say, ‘Here’s my checklist of suspicious behaviors.’ ” 

The share of the U.S. public identifying as Muslim was 0.9 percent in 2014, up from 0.4 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, of Americans who identify with a non-Christian religion, “growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus,” the organization reports.

About 20 percent of the religious discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from Muslims, said James Ryan, an EEOC spokesman. That percentage has held steady for the past decade, he said, and represents the highest amount for any specific religious category. People of the Jewish faith file the second-highest amount, at 8.8 percent. 

Ryan pointed out that many of the claims filed by Muslims allege that managers or co-workers insinuated that the individual was a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer based on his or her religion, national origin, or Middle Eastern appearance. 

For instance, in March 2012, AutoZone Inc. agreed to pay $75,000 to settle an EEOC lawsuit accusing the distributor and retailer of automobile parts of subjecting an employee who’d converted to the Sikh religion to harassment that included disparaging his religion, asking if he had joined al-Qaida and asking if he was a terrorist. AutoZone, the EEOC alleged, failed to intervene when customers referred to the employee, who wore a turban, as “bin Laden” and made terrorist jokes. 

Robin Shea, a partner with North Carolina-based Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP, said it’s critical to report suspicious activity in a manner that focuses solely on actions and words. 

“If an employee observes what he or she regards as suspicious behavior … I would try to get as much specific, fact-based detail as possible,” she said. “If the suspicions appear to be more than simple prejudice against individuals with Middle Eastern or Muslim backgrounds, I would recommend contacting law enforcement, reporting the observed behavior and following their recommendations. If this alertness consists only of noticing that a co-worker appears to be Middle Eastern or is a Muslim, that’s going to be a problem.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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