The Chicago Employment Law Blog

EEOC Focusing More on Muslim, Sikh Workplace Discrimination

It should come as no surprise to anyone that since 9/11, the misplaced anger and hatred of many Americans has been directed at those perceived to be Muslims. This has been especially true in the area of workplace discrimination, where the number of complaints filed since that tragic day has increased greatly. Those caught up in the misplaced hatred are not just Muslims either. Sikhs and other South Asian workers have experienced a similar increase.

According to the EEOC, in the initial months after 9/11, there was a 250% increase in religion-based discrimination cases involving Muslims. In the six months after 9/11, there were 1,040 charges filed with the EEOC involving those perceived to be Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian. Recent cases filed with the EEOC have involved the use of terms such as "camel eater," "Saddam Hussein," and "terrorist."

Because of the increased prevalence of discrimination and harassment of these groups, employers need to be more aware of their responsibilities than ever. Here are some general guidelines:

Accommodate Religious Needs.

They key to accommodating the religious beliefs of employees is flexibility. While Jewish employees might need an occasional day off for holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Muslim employees are required by their religion to pray five times per day, plus attend Friday prayers.

While praying before work, during lunch, and after work accounts for most of a Muslim employee's religious duties, an employer is required to make other accommodations, such as short break times during the day, when it is not an undue hardship for the employer. For example, a hospital might not be required to relieve a surgeon mid-operation to allow for prayer. On the other hand, a restaurant might be required to let its employee take a prayer break during downtime.

Be Vigilant about Harassment.

Many of the cases addressed by the EEOC involve employee-on-employee harassment. When reports are made about religion-based or ethnic-based harassment, an employer should investigate the matter promptly and take whatever remedial measures are necessary to curb the offensive conduct. It also helps to draft a workplace policy prohibiting harassment.

Hiring and Other Employment Decisions.

The rule is simple and fair: Be objective. An employee's race, religion, gender, age, or other irrelevant factors should not be considered when making decisions about hiring, pay, or promotions. Instead, neutral and objective factors should be used, such as experience and qualifications. A clearly drafted policy will hopefully prevent other employees from making poor decisions based on a prospective applicant's religion or ethnicity.

All of this advice can be summed up as this: Be reasonable. Be reasonable in accommodating employees' religious needs. Be reasonable in handling harassment claims. And when it comes to employment decisions, reasonable objective factors should be behind any decision. If you have any further questions about religious discrimination in the workplace, feel free to post a question to our FindLaw Answers Employment Law message board.

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