Muslim Employees Still Face Unique Workplace Challenges a Decade After 9/11

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Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a growing number of employees and job applicants still face employment discrimination based in part on their actual or perceived Muslim heritage, legal and workplace experts told BNA Aug. 16-24.

While the attacks in 2001 are not solely responsible for the increase in this type of employment discrimination, they said, the loss of almost 3,000 lives that day in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia remains a contributing factor. More recent factors include employment concerns caused by the economic downturn, sources said, as well as a growing trend of employees being more overt about their faith-based beliefs.

“In the months following 9/11, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a significant uptick in reports and complaints of religious and national origin discrimination, especially those related to Muslim, Arab, and South Asian status,” David Yamada, law professor and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, told BNA.

“Even more recently, the EEOC has seen an increase in discrimination claims from Muslims,” he said. “I believe this is the result of continuing aftershocks from 9/11, as well as our subsequent military involvement in the Middle East.”

EEOC spokesperson Christine Saah Nazer told BNA in an e-mail message Aug. 22 that “charge filings by Muslims have been steadily increasing since 2001.”

Of the 2,127 religion-based charges filed with the EEOC in fiscal year 2001, EEOC data show 330, or 15.5 percent, were from individuals who identified their religion as Muslim. Preliminary EEOC data show that of the 2,171 religion-based charges filed in fiscal 2011, 474, or 21.8 percent, were from individuals who identified their religion as Muslim.

Attorney Stan Malos, a management professor in California at San Jose State University's College of Business, told BNA it is unclear whether “victims are speaking up more or the occurrences are still going strong despite employers' best efforts.”

Discrimination Also Tied to Economy

The economy also has played a role in workplace tension involving Muslim workers, workplace analysts said.

“Since 2007 there's been more economic anxiety and that has heightened concern about security and led to an increase in resentment toward people who ‘don't belong here,' ” said Lindsay Thompson, an associate professor at Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “So there's a real tension everywhere about who's entitled to live and work in the United States.”

Malos shared a similar view. “Particularly in a tough economy, where competition from any sector is threatening to some people, they may see folks with Middle Eastern backgrounds as most likely targets or lightening rods for generalized resentment.”

At the same time, he added, “I think there's a growing awareness that not everyone with an accent, turban, or hijab is a terrorist.”

For example, Malos noted, San Jose State University's new president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, is a Muslim and a native of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Misunderstandings About Muslims

Part of the problem facing Muslim employees is that their co-workers often lack knowledge about their culture and religion, sources said.

Joyce Dubensky, chief executive officer of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a secular, nonsectarian organization in New York, told BNA that after 9/11: “Essentially, we conflated the words ‘Muslim,' ‘Middle East,' and ‘terrorist' into one image. We stopped understanding the breadth of Islam, Islamic practices, and that ‘terrorist' was an aberration.”

EEOC spokesperson Christine Saah Nazer told BNA that “charge filings by Muslims have been steadily increasing since 2001.”

During a Society for Human Resource Management webcast Aug. 24 titled “The 10th Anniversary of 9/11: Preparing for Diverse Reactions from a Diverse Workforce,” Mark Fowler, director of programs at the Tanenbaum Center, told participants: “Following 9/11, we began to see the terms Arab and Muslim often become conflated. All Muslims were perceived to be Arab and all Arabs were perceived to be Muslim, which is simply not the case.”

Fowler noted that about 2 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim. He also pointed out that 60 percent of the Muslim population globally resides in Asia, while 20 percent live in the Middle East and North Africa combined.

The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study earlier this year titled The Future of the Global Muslim Population, Projections for 2010-2030. It noted that the top countries of origin for Muslim immigrants to the United States in 2009 were Pakistan and Bangladesh. “They are expected to remain the top countries of origin for Muslim immigrants to the United States in 2030,” the report said.

The Pew report also noted that in the United States, population projections show the number of Muslims more than doubling over the next 20 years, increasing from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030. This in large part is because of immigration and higher-than-average fertility among Muslims, the report said.

9/11 Changed Work Environments

Najwa Hadous, director of employment and training at the Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services (ACCESS), a nonprofit agency in Dearborn, Mich., said the work environment for Muslim employees has been “much, much better” in the past couple of years. She noted that this was not the case immediately after 9/11.

“At that time many people were harassed at work by their employers and co-workers,” said Hadous, who was working at ACCESS in 2001. She said that some Muslims who were offered jobs prior to 9/11 never again heard from the employer after the attacks. “When 9/11 happened, they never got that call or letter,” Hadous said.

Najwa Hadous of the Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services said the work environment for Muslim employees has been “much, much better” in the past couple of years. She noted that this was not the case immediately after 9/11.

“Many people were fired for no reason, especially those who were Middle Eastern,” she said. “People began to look at you in a revolting way and with suspicion. It was a difficult time.”

Hadous, who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the 1970s, said women who wore the hijab, the head covering traditionally worn by observant Muslim females, also were “mocked and hassled” at work and on the street.

Such difficulties still exist to some extent, according to results from an August 2011 study, Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom, and the Future: Examining U.S. Muslims' Political, Social, and Spiritual Engagement 10 Years After September 11. The Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center in the United Arab Emirates conducted the study.

“Sixty percent of U.S. Muslims say they face prejudice from most Americans,” according to the survey report. “However, far fewer Americans of other faiths believe this to be true.”

The report also said, “At 48 [percent] Muslim Americans are by far the most likely of major faith groups surveyed to say they have personally experienced racial or religious discrimination in the past year.”

While conditions for U.S. Muslim workers and those perceived to be Muslim might not be as harsh today as they were 10 years ago, Hadous said job applicants with Arab names still face challenges getting hired and sometimes still are mistreated by their supervisors, though primarily she said there is tension between co-workers.

Malos at San Jose State University would agree that co-worker harassment is the biggest issue. “Supervisors tend to be trained,” he said, “but you still see co-worker harassment, hostile environment issues, and epithets.”

Litigation Over Discrimination, Harassment

Recent legal cases involving discrimination against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim include:

• A federal jury in Tulsa, Okla., July 20 awarded EEOC $20,000 in compensatory damages on behalf of a Muslim woman the commission alleged was denied a job by Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc. because she wears a headscarf (EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc., N.D. Okla., No. 4:09-cv-00602, judgment entered 7/21/11; 29 HRR 828, 8/1/11).

• In August 2010, EEOC filed two lawsuits against JBS Swift, claiming the company violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Somali Muslim workers at its meatpacking plants in Greeley, Colo., and Grand Island, Neb. (28 HRR 933, 9/6/10). EEOC alleged that JBS Swift failed to accommodate the Muslim workers' religious beliefs by hindering their prayer breaks and Ramadan observances, and that supervisors and co-workers harassed the Somali workers by uttering vulgar epithets and throwing bones, meat, and blood at them. The case is ongoing.

• A Sikh network security analyst, who is of Indian descent and wears a full beard and a turban, can proceed with claims that his employer fired him in retaliation for complaining that two co-workers allegedly directed the word “terrorist” at him, a federal district court in Illinois ruled June 13 (Komal v. Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., N.D. Ill., No. 09-06619, 6/13/11; 29 HRR 660, 6/20/11).

Nazer noted that after 9/11 EEOC embarked on a national enforcement, education, and outreach campaign to discuss harassment and discrimination against people who are or are perceived to be Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, South Asian, or Sikh. This campaign also focused on discussions about employees who faced retaliation in the workplace as a result of 9/11.

In addition to various other actions, EEOC released a joint statement against employment discrimination in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, along with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

Employees More Open About Religion

Sources noted that a growing number of employees are becoming more open about expressing their religious beliefs.

“Many people are becoming more insistent about being people of faith in their daily lives,” attorney Bob Gregg of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field in Madison, Wis., told BNA. “So we have more people who are bringing religion into the workplace and asking for accommodations in the workplace.

“At the same time,” Gregg said, “we are in a period where a number of people are insisting they want to be free of religion in the workplace and not have it.”

Dubensky at the Tanenbaum Center said that since 9/11 there has been an increase in interest among “some of the most forward-thinking companies” about how to address workplace challenges posed by an influx of new immigrants, who often have different religious and spiritual practices.

“Some of the best companies are responding proactively in this field regarding religious diversity in the workplace,” she said. “They are allowing the creation of employee resource groups (ERGs) that include religion or are interfaith, making accommodations for prayer in inclusive ways, and providing training so managers know how to manage the issues and employees know how to work together as teams.”

Companies BNA contacted, including Eli Lilly, a global pharmaceutical giant based in Indianapolis, and Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and technology consulting firm in McLean, Va., have established ERGs that focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Middle East North Africa diversity forum has been instrumental in building awareness across religious differences,” Mark McLane, Booz Allen Hamilton's director of diversity and inclusion, told BNA.

He noted that three of Booz Allen Hamilton's employees died during the attack at the Pentagon on 9/11.

Eli Lilly's ERG, which has about 65 members, helps bring diverse cultures in the Middle East and neighboring countries together to work as a team regardless of race, religion, or beliefs, said Anna Burnham, the group's chair. The resource group also has increased networking opportunities for Eli Lilly in the global emerging market in the Middle East, she said.

“What's important to recognize, and it's a challenge for many businesses, is that the skill sets in addressing diversity, and in particular religious diversity, tend to be considered ‘soft skills' but, in fact, they are fundamental for success globally and they affect the bottom line,” Dubensky said.

Adopt an ‘Accommodation Mindset.'

The Tanenbaum Center recommends that companies focus on “the three Ps”—policies, practices, and people—and adopt an “accommodation mindset,” Dubensky said.

Employers should review policies and, where appropriate, make them “religiously inclusive and respectful,” Dubensky said, “without undermining your workplace.”

For example, she cited a hospital with a dress code that did not allow employees to have beards because they could pose infection threats to patients. Instead of requiring an employee who wore a beard for religious reasons to shave it off, Dubensky said, the hospital asked its mask supplier to create a mask that could be worn with beards.

“So a very simple accommodation made it possible for people to do their work and still observe what many feel is a religious mandate,” Dubensky said.

Another example she cited involved a company that created a color-coordinated hijab, which allowed a Muslim employee to abide by her Islamic faith and conform to the organization's dress code.

Diversity Training

Sources said that diversity training might be needed to help employers faced with faith-based concerns.

Such training will depend on the workplace culture, Yamada at the New Workplace Institute said. Factors to keep in mind, he said, include what type of employees the company will be training, their ethnic and racial makeup, and how many workers are in the organization, he said.

It also will be important for employers to be aware of any issues the company might already have faced, Yamada said. “Past problems may be predictive of future problems,” he explained. “At the very least, you'd want to put your managers on notice that this is something that is a priority concern and train them to deal with those situations.”

“What's important to recognize, and it's a challenge for many businesses, is that the skill sets in addressing diversity, and in particular religious diversity, tend to be considered ‘soft skills' but, in fact, they are fundamental for success globally and they affect the bottom line,” said Joyce Dubensky of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

Malos recommends that employers go beyond providing general diversity training. In a 2010 article titled Post-9/11 backlash in the workplace: Employer liability for discrimination against Arab- and Muslim-Americans based on religion or national origin, Malos recommended that companies “provide legal redress for generalized workplace bullying.” Such policies are being used by organizations in New Zealand, Australia, and northern European countries, Malos noted. They do not bar discrimination based on certain characteristics such as race or religion. Instead, they essentially say all employees comprise the organization's protected class and any sort of mistreatment of its members is discouraged.

Ultimately, “9/11 is a test of our vision as a country,” Thompson at Johns Hopkins said. “Can we be the nation we want to be, that we envision ourselves to be, in a very turbulent, globalized world? Can we be welcoming, free, a democratic society that is prosperous and peaceful for everybody?

“I think we can be,” she said. “The biggest challenge for employers, and for ordinary people and associations, is how do you narrow that gap between our aspiration and our ability to execute that aspiration flawlessly.”

By Rhonda Smith


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