Diversity & Inclusion

Preventing discrimination against Muslim and Middle Eastern workers

by Anna C. Lukeman

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has warned employers to be proactive and take measures against discrimination aimed at those who are or are perceived to be either Muslim or Middle Eastern.  Middle eastern people having a business meeting at office

In her statement to address this issue, EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang said, “America was founded on the principle of religious freedom. As a nation, we must continue to seek the fair treatment of all, even as we grapple with the concerns raised by the recent terrorist attacks. When people come to work and are unfairly harassed or otherwise targeted based on their religion or national origin, it undermines our shared and longstanding values of tolerance and equality for all.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and potential employees on the basis of national origin, religion, race, color, or sex. Discrimination can potentially occur in many forms throughout the employment process, including hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, disciplining, and accommodating. In support of the rising need to protect employees from discrimination, the EEOC has released two resource documents explaining the federal antidiscrimination laws in a Q&A format.

Employer responsibilities

The EEOC’s Employer Responsibility Q&A is designed to help employers meet their responsibility of preventing discrimination in the workplace. The following are specific examples cited by the EEOC of ways to prevent workplace discrimination against employees who are or appear to be Muslim or Middle Eastern:

Hiring decisions

  • You may not deny applicants a job because of customer preferences about religious attire. For example, it would be a violation of Title VII to refuse to hire an applicant who wears religious attire such as a hijab (veil or headscarf).
  • You should take preventative and proactive measures to avoid this form of discrimination. Train all employees on objective, job-related criteria for hiring decisions.

Harassment

  • In response to terrorist attacks, you may need to retrain employees and publicize the company’s antiharassment policies to prevent workplace interactions that could take the form of harassment.
  • If you learn of harassing conduct in the workplace, take immediate steps to address the situation. Disciplinary action should follow to prevent any further harassing behavior.

Religious accommodation

  • You should work closely with employees to create reasonable religious accommodations to help meet their religious needs. But you aren’t required to provide an accommodation that would cause an undue hardship for your business.
  • In evaluating requests for prayer time, allow the request if it doesn’t impose an undue hardship.

Background investigations

  • You may require employee background checks before employment so long as the same preemployment background check (including security measures) is required of all other applicants.
  • You may not perform investigations or background checks in a discriminatory manner.

Employee workplace rights

As outlined in the EEOC’s Q&A for Employees, employees should be aware of their rights in the workplace.

Hiring

  • The only way to know whether an employer failed to hire an applicant for illegal, discriminatory purposes is to obtain more facts about the situation. A mere gut feeling that an applicant was denied employment based on national origin, race, or religion likely isn’t enough.
  • Customer preference is never a justification for discrimination against an employee and may never be used as a reason for failing to hire an applicant.
  • Employees may file a charge with the EEOC, which will assess the charge and conduct an investigation.

Harassment

  • Employees may face uncomfortable discussions in the workplace. If the situation doesn’t rise to the level of harassment, employees should still communicate with coworkers, managers, or supervisors to address and resolve the tension.

Religious accommodation

  • Employees may request a reasonable change in a workplace rule or policy that allows them to practice their religion. However, an employer won’t be required to provide any accommodation that creates an undue hardship on the company or organization.
  • An employer can require an employee to make up time if the employee requests break time for religious prayer.

Anna C. Lukeman is an attorney with McAfee & Taft, practicing in the firm’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, office. She may be reached at anna.lukeman@mcafeetaft.com.