Addressing Potential Muslim Discrimination in the Workplace

February 24, 2016
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Addressing Potential Muslim Discrimination in the Workplace

In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently addressed how employers should tackle potential discrimination toward Muslims. The EEOC acknowledges that the fear and uncertainty associated with terrorism can lead to tensions in the workplace. In addition to workers that might make inflammatory remarks, the EEOC also notes that other workers may be fearful of harassment. In either case, the agency makes it clear that employers are responsible for complying with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII Prohibits Discrimination

As employers should be aware, Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, country of origin, race, or color.  The federal employment law bans discrimination in all aspects of employment, including hiring, job assignments, pay, and termination. Employers must also prevent or promptly address illegal workplace harassment. Lastly, Title VII also prohibits retaliation against someone who complains about a discriminatory practice, files a charge, or assists in an investigation of discrimination. Upon announcing the guidance, the EEOC called on employers to be particularly mindful of discrimination against workers who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern. “We commend employers who have already taken steps to issue or re-issue policies on preventing harassment, retaliation and other forms of discrimination in the workplace, and we encourage all employers to remain vigilant and to communicate their commitment to inclusive workplaces throughout their organizations,” EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang stated.

EEOC’s Questions and Answers

The EEOC guidance provides several illustrative examples of employer conduct that would violate Title VII. With regard to harassment, the agency provides the hypothetical situation of an Arab American named Muhammad, who works for XYZ Motors. Muhammad meets with his manager and complains that Jeff, one of his coworkers, regularly calls him names like “the local terrorist,” and “ISIS.” The EEOC advises: “Managers and supervisors who learn about objectionable workplace conduct based on religion or national origin are responsible for promptly taking steps to correct the conduct by anyone under their control.  If, after an investigation, XYZ Motors ultimately determines that Jeff has harassed Muhammad, it should take disciplinary action against Jeff that is significant enough to ensure that the harassment does not continue.” In terms of hiring, the EEOC presents the example of Aliyyah, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab (or head covering). When Aliyyah applies for a position as a cashier at XYZ Discount Goods, an XYZ assistant store manager fears that Aliyyah’s religious attire will make customers uncomfortable. According to the EEOC: “XYZ should not deny Aliyyah the job due to customer preferences about religious attire.  This would be the same as refusing to hire Aliyyah because she is Muslim. It would be against the law.  It also would be unlawful for XYZ to assign Aliyyah to a position with no interaction with customers because she wears a hijab.” The EEOC guidance highlights that discrimination against Muslims in the workplace is a growing concern. Employers are advised to review their hiring policies and remind all workers that harassment will not be tolerated.