Diversity & Inclusion

EEOC addresses workplace discrimination against Muslim or Middle Eastern individuals

As backlash is rising steadily in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is taking an active approach to addressing current and potential workplace discrimination. EEOC Chair Jenny Yang issued a statement urging employers and employees to be mindful of instances of harassment, intimidation, or discrimination in the workplace against “vulnerable communities” such as employees who are or are being perceived to be Muslim. She cautioned employers to “take steps to directly address potential problems to prevent harassment, retaliation and other forms of discrimination” and encouraged employees to “report incidents to their workplace official and to the EEOC or its state and local partners.”  Muslim business lady

The agency also released two resource guidance documents, one for employers and one for employees, in Q&A format to explain federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination against individuals who are targeted for being Muslim or perceived to be Muslim. The guides note well-established strategies to curb and prevent workplace discrimination and warn employers that “reactions in the workplace to world events demand increased efforts . . . to prevent discrimination.”

Employers are reminded that they are responsible for addressing “objectionable workplace conduct based on religion and national origin” and “for taking steps to correct the conduct by anyone under their control.” Customer preferences or reactions to an employee’s religious attire cannot be the basis for hiring decisions because that would be akin to refusing to hire someone based on her religion. Employers must provide workers time off for religious holidays or allow exceptions to dress and grooming codes. Any background investigations or screening procedures must be consistently applied to all employees.

The message from the EEOC is clear: Discrimination based on national origin is considered unlawful, and employers should take proactive steps to encourage communication and engage in strategies to prevent and correct discrimination.
Vijaya S. Surampudi is a law clerk with Fortney & Scott, LLC, in Washington, D.C. You can reach her at vsurampudi@fortneyscott.com.