Workforce Diversity – Islam (Muslims) in the American Workplace

Many devout Muslims attend weekly services at their mosques on Fridays around noon.

Many devout Muslims attend weekly services at their mosques on Fridays around noon.

When I wrote my blog last month, “Islamophobia – a Growing US Diversity Issue,” I promised to follow up with blogs about Islam in the workplace and the intersection of LGBT issues with Islam. So here is the workplace blog.

With over 2.5 million Muslims now living in the United States, including many who were born in this country, it is very likely that you will have Muslim coworkers, customers, managers and / or employees. So it is important to understand some of the items which may come up in the workplace with this aspect of religious and multicultural diversity.

Here are just three items to consider:

1) The Muslim religious obligation. For the devout Muslim, the most holy time when many Muslims go to their mosque to worship is Friday at noon. Many Muslims would appreciate having an extended lunch hour to attend services. I once had a devout Muslim working for me, and I made sure to never schedule a department meeting around noon on Fridays nor expected him to attend key meetings around the time.

2) Interaction with women. The devout Muslim woman is not allowed to have physical contact except with her husband or close male relative. This may be important to consider when a female Muslim work associate is being introduced to a male. Often our custom is to shake hands when introduced, but this may not be feasible in this case. If you know you are being introduced to a Muslim woman, simply nod your head in acknowledgement and say “very glad to meet you.” If you are unaware that the woman is Muslim and she does not extent her hand back to you, please do not be offended. I would hope that the Muslim woman would be gracious and say something like “my religion does not permit me to touch a male, but I am very glad to be here and to meet you.”

World Champion fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed will make history this summer as the first American to wear the traditional Muslim hijab while competing at the Olympics

World Champion fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed will make history this summer as the first American to wear the traditional Muslim hijab while competing at the Olympics

3) Traditional dress. Wearing a hijab, or headscarf, is for many Muslim women a visible expression of the faith, piety or modesty. There have already been several cases brought to the EEOC (Employment Equal Opportunity Commission) from employers who felt this dress violated corporate dress codes, especially in customer-facing roles, and in most cases, the EEOC sides with the employee. One of the most visible cases was the clothing store Abercrombie and Fitch’s refusal to hire Samantha Elauf, a Muslim, because of her religious practice of wearing a hijab. (See EEOC press release about this case.)

Here is an excellent resource available from the EEOC which goes in more depth on some these issues and additional ones.

Overall, these are simple and reasonable “religious accommodations” as with working with other people of faith in the workplace. It makes good business sense to provide a little flexibility and respect to build a workplace climate where everyone feels included, can be themselves, and bring the very best of their talent to the job.

An hour with EEOC Commissioner Charlotte A. Burrows, Part 2 – LGBT Concerns

EEOC Commissioner Burrows discussed the successful case of transgender woman Tamara Lusardi vs the US Army (photo from www.washingtonblade.com)

EEOC Commissioner Burrows discussed the successful case of transgender woman Tamara Lusardi vs the US Army (photo from www.washingtonblade.com)

NOTE: See link to an important LGBT resource in the last paragraph!

Last week I was invited to attend a “Meet and Greet” with one of the USA’s five EEOC (Employment Equal Opportunity Commission) Commissioners, Charlotte A. Burrows, in the EEOC’s downtown Raleigh office. I received the invite since I am an officer of the Raleigh Business and Professional Network, Raleigh’s National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s affiliate chapter.

In Part 1 published earlier this week (link), I summarized how the meeting was structured and six high priority areas that the EEOC was working on shared by Ms. Burrows. Since I am a diversity consultant capable of handling all areas of diversity but with a deep expertise in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) workplace and marketplace, I will expand on that subject in this “part 2.”

The most important basic point raised by Ms. Burrows is that even though sexual orientation and gender identity are not explicitly delineated as a “protected classes” in Title VII (The Civil Rights Act of 1964), the EEOC is very open to pursuing complaints in these areas. At the Federal Level, there have been an increasing number of court cases where the ruling is that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is assumed within the “sex” area of Title VII.

Ms. Burrows then mentioned two specific cases in the sexual orientation and gender identity realms:

1) In the 7th District Court Case Warnether A. Muhammad vs. Caterpillar Inc., the court initially took the position that discrimination based on sexual orientation could not be used by the plaintiff suing using Title VII. But on appeal from the EEOC, though Muhammed lost his case on other grouds, the panel did reverse its position about the invalidity of using sexual orientation discrimination in cases like these.

2) In the case of Tamara Lusardi (a transgender woman) vs. the US Army, (link to Washington Blade article) the EEOC ruled that prohibiting Tamara from using the restroom identified with her gender constituted gender discrimination under the law.

Ms. Burrows strongly made the point that the EEOC is truly “open for business” to pursue discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and that over the past few years, over $3M in fines and settlements in these areas have been recorded. She further shared the statistic that in the LGBT area, about 80% of the cases coming to them are around sexual orientation and about 20% around gender identity.

During Q and A when I inquired about the dichotomy between the EEOC pursuing these cases in the light of no national ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) that includes protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, she replied that a congressional passed ENDA law would certainly make this discussion much more “cut and dry” and send a very strong national message. However, even with the current absence of an EDNA, the EEOC will certainly still pursue LGBT discrimination cases.

As stated in part 1 of this blog, I am very grateful for the EEOC in fighting employment discrimination for ALL PEOPLE. And even in my own research I later found this very useful resource from the EEOC to assist people in addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.