Religious and National Origin Discrimination in Heated Political Times

It is easy for employers to lose sight of the obligation to protect all employees regardless of national origin or religion with all the heated political rhetoric we hear right now. But it is still against every federal and state civil rights law for an employer with 15 or more names on the payroll to allow any workplace harassment or discrimination on the basis of where someone is from, what language they speak or what religion they practice.

Since 2001, religious and national origin discrimination cases filed by Muslims and others of Middle Eastern ancestry have increased. Similarly, when illegal immigration is a hot topic, employees of Mexican heritage are often targeted for discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now receives approximately 3000 charges each year about religious discrimination and 9000-10000 charges of national origin discrimination in the workplace.

In some circumstances, the discrimination is quite blatant.  In Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois (7th Cir. 2015), the Muslim plaintiff of Saudi Arabian origin alleged that her supervisor was a devout, vocal Christian who was unfriendly to her from the beginning. The supervisor allegedly referred to one of Huri’s colleagues as a “good churchgoing Christian” while calling Huri “evil”.  The supervisor reportedly also made a show of saying Christian prayers in the workplace while holding hands with employees other than Huri.

Any employer should be able to quickly recognize the legal and morale implications of such behavior and correct it. But other questions arise when well-meaning employers are confronted with an employee who may be from a culture or religion that the employer is unfamiliar with. That’s why in 2016 the EEOC released guidelines specifically about preventing discrimination against employees on the basis of national origin. These guidelines join the EEOC’s specific guidance on the workplace rights of employees who are perceived to be Muslim or Middle Eastern and the EEOC’s guidance on best practices to prevent religious discrimination in business settings.

What does an employer need to do to prevent or address any hostility in the company towards an employee on the basis of that employee’s national origin or religion?

  • Educate employees, particularly first-line supervisors, on the company’s responsibility to protect employees from any hostility or discrimination on the basis of religion or national origin.
  • Employees should know who they can go to within the company to get effective, nonjudgmental help when they do encounter harassment or discrimination.
  • Provide flexible paid time off that can be used without explaining the reasons for the leave and or having to request approval, whether the time is taken for vacation, sick leave or to celebrate certain religious or ethnic holidays.
  • Also be flexible in your break times, so that, for example, Muslim employees can use a short break (5-10 minutes) to pray five times during each day if they so choose.
  • Make exceptions to the dress code when an employee has a sincerely held religious belief that requires certain clothing (such as a hijab) and when no undue hardship for the employer (such as a material safety issue) would occur as a result of the exception.
  • If you allow employees to pray, proselytize, or hold a Bible study on company premises, make sure you are equally accommodating to people of all faiths.
  • While you may allow political discussions at work, you must be very diligent to quickly intercede if the discussion crosses the line to threats, intimidation, prejudice, hate speech or harassment.
  • Don’t institute an English-only rule in your workplace. If you are having language-barrier problems with your employees, consult an employment attorney before you decide on rules to address the communication problem.
  • As always, use only job-performance criteria  to hire, evaluate, discipline and fire employees.

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