The Corporate Climate: Making sure Muslims feel welcome

Following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, we’ve received numerous questions from clients about the current “state of affairs.” They want to know what to expect and how fear of ISIS and negative portrayals of Islam might manifest themselves in workplaces. As anti-Muslim sentiment rises, employers are worried about backlash in their own offices. One particular case pertaining to this issue recently caught our attention.

Terry Ali, a Muslim-American woman in Dearborn, Michigan, is suing her former employer, who fired her two days after the San Bernardino attack. Ali says that she was first moved from the front desk to the back room, and then fired, because of her religion (specifically, because of the headscarf she wore which marked her as Muslim). The EEOC is currently investigating Ali’s claim, which the employer denies (they say she was fired because she could not adequately perform certain tasks, such as typing).

Whether this is a clear case of discrimination, unconscious bias, or just bad timing, the fact remains that it looks a lot like backlash. Ali is far from the only employee to be concerned that her religion is impacting her employment prospects. Recently, the USA TODAY Network reported that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Dearborn, Michigan has received over a dozen calls from Muslims in the area reporting workplace discrimination and harassment since December 2 (when the San Bernardino attack took place).

Anti-Muslim sentiment in the workplace is a manifestation of a larger American trend. A Zogby Analytics poll released by the Arab American Institute (AAI) in December shows “persistent, negative attitudes” towards Muslims and Arabs.  Compared to results from a similar poll conducted in 2010, favorable attitudes have declined by 9% (from 49% to 40%) towards Arab Americans and by 15% (from 48% to 33%) towards American Muslims.

According to a recent AP-NORC poll, the importance of preserving religious liberty for religious groups appears to vary greatly depending on which religious group you are talking about. 82% of respondents said that “religious liberty protections” were important for Christians, but only 61% said the same for Muslims.

Finally, the Public Religion Research Institute’s (PRRI) 2015 American Values Survey found that 56% of Americans agree that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life”, an increase by 9% compared to PRRI’s 2011 survey.

In this climate, Muslim employees have reason to worry that their religious freedom in the workplace is at risk. So how should companies respond? If an employee is physically attacked or verbally harassed because they are Muslim (or thought to be), we believe that most companies wouldn’t hesitate to take disciplinary action. But what should companies do, proactively, to make it clear that Muslim employees are welcome and valued?

  • Is there space available for those who engage in daily prayer?
  • Are headscarves in line with the dress code?
  • Is halal food available in the cafeteria?
  • Are employees able to take time off for holidays like Ramadan and Eid?
  • Is there a Muslim or interfaith Employee Resource Group (ERG) that employees can join if they are interested in contributing to a more inclusive workplace?

Employers can make a difference in the current climate where anti-Muslim sentiment is rampant, by sending a message to employees, clients, and constituents that employees of all faiths and none are welcome, valued, and respected at work.