Guard Against Harassment of Muslims, Particularly After Terrorist Attacks

Provide reasonable accommodations, lawyers advise, such as changes of break time during Ramadan

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. June 12, 2017
Guard Against Harassment of Muslims, Particularly After Terrorist Attacks

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prioritized the fight against Islamophobia in its strategic enforcement plan for fiscal years 2017-21 and HR professionals should follow the agency's lead, experts say, particularly after terrorist attacks.

A May report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C., showed a 57 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents in 2016 over the previous year. HR could foster greater tolerance by combatting harassment and providing reasonable accommodations. Ramadan, which is observed May 26-June 24 this year, may result in its own accommodation requests. During this holy month, people of Muslim faith abstain from eating during daylight hours.

"Some of the winds of prejudice and hatred and deepest, darkest fears are blowing across the land," said Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., in an interview with SHRM Online. "Nothing is preventing them from coming into any workplace."

Ahmed expressed concern that if there were one or two more big incidents of terrorism there could be "a big backlash." He said that HR professionals "should consciously be more public and more unequivocal in condemning harassment" against Muslims.

EEOC Actions

The EEOC is tackling emerging issues such as discriminatory practices against those who are Muslim, "arising from backlash against them from tragic events in the United States and abroad," the commission said in its strategic enforcement plan.

Steven Loewengart, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Columbus, Ohio, noted that the EEOC has sued:

  • A hotel, alleging that its management illegally permitted a hostile work environment in which workers called an Iraqi immigrant a "camel jockey" and taunted him over news items about captured terrorists.
  • A meat-packing company on behalf of Somali immigrants, claiming that supervisors and co-workers cursed at them for being Muslim; threw blood, meat and bones at them; and interrupted their prayer breaks.
  • A retailer, accusing it of refusing to hire a teenage Muslim because she was wearing a head scarf. The EEOC wound up taking this case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in its favor.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the EEOC saw a 250 percent increase in cases of religion-based discrimination against Muslims. Since 2002, Muslims continue to make up a disproportionate number of the commission's religion-based discrimination charges, hovering at over 20 percent.

Polls have suggested that some Americans feel a growing wariness toward Muslims after Sept. 11, 2001, and other recent attacks, he said. "According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 39 percent of Americans believe that Muslims in America should be subject to more scrutiny than people of other religions," he stated.

Tolerant, Respectful Workplaces

"Employers should be proactive about creating and fostering tolerant and respectful workplaces," he said. Employers might:

  • Revamp training programs and become more aware of harassment risk factors.
  • Reinforce good behavior at the highest levels and devote sufficient resources to train managers.
  • Remind employees of policies that prohibit ethnic and religious slurs.
  • Institute confidential complaint mechanisms to encourage people to come forward with concerns.
  • Provide religious accommodations for work schedules, dress codes and prayers at work if doing so would not cause the employer undue hardship.

Allison West, Esq., SHRM-SCP, SPHR, principal of Employment Practices Specialists in San Francisco, recommended that employers:

  • Create cultures of respect and inclusion.
  • Require executives to be role models.
  • Promptly and thoroughly investigate complaints, educate employees and stop harassment.

"Some people feel permission in our current political climate to behave inappropriately in the workplace. Employers must be diligent," she said.

Reasonable Accommodations

Employers also should reasonably accommodate Muslims' religious observance in the workplace, said Corey Saylor, a CAIR spokesman.

For example, if a male employee wants to adjust his lunch break on Fridays for prayer at a mosque—the only day during the week when prayer at a mosque is mandatory for men (it traditionally is voluntary for women)—he might take two hours of lunch then and not take lunch some other day, Saylor suggested.

He noted that at one meat-packing plant, Muslims rotate off the assembly line two at a time for the sunset prayers since all 20 Muslim employees can't be away at the same time.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Religion, Belief and Spirituality in the Workplace]

It's important that the prohibition on religious discrimination and the employer's duty to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of applicants and employees must be clearly set forth in the company's harassment and equal employment opportunity policies, said Michelle Phillips, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y. But she cautioned that it would be inappropriate for a manager to request proof of a Muslim employee's religious beliefs or practices from the worker's imam.

"Denying a Muslim employee a change in break time to accommodate fasting during Ramadan is generally problematic," she added. "If the employer fails to accommodate a request for a change in the meal period from the scheduled lunch time until after sunset, this will be an issue unless the employer can show an undue burden to the company."

"It can sometimes be easier for an employer to effectively accommodate religious dress requirements or daily prayer needs in an office setting, where individual schedules can be more flexible and potential co-worker resentment or hostility can be curtailed with appropriate communications and diversity training," said Rae Gross, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Detroit. "It can be harder to achieve the same results on a factory assembly line, where there may be real or perceived concerns about safety issues with religious headwear or co-workers may have to pick up the pace to cover for an employee who is on prayer break."

She added that employers should be open to exploring reasonable accommodations when asked. "Don't automatically assume that it just can't be done," she said. 


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