The Rise of Muslim-Friendly Workplaces in Corporate America

Taking Steps to Make U.S. Workplaces Safe for Muslims
  • Motivations may be principled, but moves are also practical
  • Companies are adding prayer rooms, support groups, discussions

More U.S. employers are taking steps to make Muslims feel accepted and safe at work, as their faith comes under scrutiny with the rise in terror attacks and calls by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for a ban on Muslim immigrants.

Companies are setting aside rooms for prayer, organizing group discussions about the religion and planning office parties without alcohol. The motivations may be principled, but the moves are practical. Managers want to keep talented workers and avoid conflict, and litigation.

Office rules and constitutional rights have collided for decades, but the tension takes on new weight in an era of heightened apprehension about Islam, especially after the slaughters in Nice and Orlando and as some Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, suggest Muslims be vetted to determine if they should be allowed to stay in U.S.

“The atmosphere is so toxic now that even having constitutionally protected religious accommodation in the workplace can somehow be controversial,” says Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed complaints on behalf of Muslims fired in January from a meat-packing plant after they staged a walk-out to protest what they said were restrictions on their ability to take prayer breaks.

EEOC and Courts

Simple things that companies do -- Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey held a Q&A session about the religion with staff after the Paris attacks last year -- can make a big difference, says Michelle Phillips, an employment law attorney.

“The value you get back from an employee who feels welcome and accommodated for their religious practices is immeasurable,” she says. “If employers don’t start taking these issues seriously, and put in measures to ensure that no one is subject to harassment, we’re going to see more claims.”

While people who practice Islam make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, some 40 percent of religion-based workplace complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission last year were related to Muslims. The agency has pursued a wide range of disputes, including whether Muslims can be fired for refusing to handle pork or alcohol at work. In many instances, the courts have said they cannot.

Undue Hardship

In EEOC cases settled with companies including AutoZone Inc. and United Parcel Services Inc., workers said they were taunted by colleagues, referred to as terrorists or called “Bin Laden,” or weren’t allowed to change schedules so they could go to the mosque. Last month, a Muslim officer was suspended by the New York City Police Department because he wouldn’t shave the beard he wears for religious reasons; he was temporarily reinstated after he sued.

After the San Bernadino terror-attack linked to Islamic State last year, the EEOC added a page to its website: “Responsibilities Concerning the Employment of Individuals Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids considering religion in making employment decisions and requires reasonable accommodation for religion-based requests, so long they don’t’ cause undue hardship. The courts have tended to side with workers when it comes to religious garb or facial hair.

Many businesses have liberal dress-code policies that make such matters non-issues. Umar Latif, recently named a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, wears a prayer cap called a kufi that he says “makes me identifiably Muslim.” The firm’s laid-back broadmindedness made his ascent through the ranks easy, he says. “There’s flexibility here.”

Today, “the level of acceptance at some of the best companies is significant,” says Subha Barry, vice president of Working Mother Media, which publishes Diversity Best Practices. “Even a few years ago, Muslims who wore prayer caps or head scarfs or wanted to pray several times a day would have thought, ‘If I do that I won’t have any chance for upward mobility.’ They would have felt they had to check their beliefs at the door to avoid harassment.”

JPMorgan Chase & Co. provides transportation to mosques, and other places of worship, for employees in offices not big enough to have prayer rooms. Alcohol wasn’t served at a recent party at a New York architecture firm because a new staff member who’s Muslim wouldn’t feel comfortable attending if it were, according to the office manager, asking not to be named because he’s not authorized to speak publicly about the firm. At Accenture Plc, the corporate calendar is organized to prevent events from conflicting with Muslim holidays, as well as those of other faiths.

Sometimes businesses are shocked into re-examining attitudes, says Joyce Dubensky, chief executive of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. She says one financial-services firm reviewed its policies after learning a Muslim job candidate decided to work at an office perceived as more friendly to women who wear the hijab.

‘Divisive Climate’

“We see more and more companies ready or asking to address issues involving religion and how to manage it,” Dubensky says. The number of Tanenbaum’s corporate partners, which include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Walt Disney Co. and Merck & Co, has doubled to 24 in the past three years.

One goal of the Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield Q&A session in Newark last year was to dispel concerns that Islam is a dangerous faith, says Mark Barnard Sr., senior vice president of the service division at the health insurer and chairman of its diversity council. “It was cathartic for everyone.”

Hadiyah Muhammad, an auditor and 41-year Horizon veteran, says it helps that her bosses encourage her to explain her beliefs and practices. When colleagues asked whether Islam expects women to be subservient to men, she organized a lunch meeting to dispel what she called that “mistaken belief.”

How employers treat Muslims, who are on track to be the second largest non-Christian group in the U.S. by 2035, will be a critical factor in years to come, says Terry Howard, senior associate at the consulting firm DiversityWealth and the former global director of diversity at Texas Instruments Inc. “It’s a divisive climate politically, and that’s painful,” he says. “Muslims, like everyone else, just want to be respected.”

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