Cultural diversity. Inclusion. Empowerment. Open dialogue.
No longer are they HR buzzwords—they’ve become c-suite issues.
In Deloitte’s 2016 biannual report, more than two out of three executives rated cultural and religious diversity as an “important” issue. The percentage of those who treat it as a top priority has increased by 32% since 2014.
At the same time, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s findings have shown that since 2016, the ratio of workplace religious discrimination charges vs. all discrimination charges filed has been highest since these statistics were first tracked in 1992.
Minorities since 2016
With the travel ban from six Muslim-majority countries, increased deportation efforts, attacks on sanctuary cities, it’s not surprising that instances of religious harassment and bullying have increased, particularly against Muslim population—Muslims are victims in 20% of the EEOC’s religion-based discrimination charges, a staggering number considering that American Muslims make up barely 1% of the whole US population.
During last year’s American Bar Association’s annual meeting in New York, one of the panelists, Gurjot Kaur from the NYC Commission on Human Rights noted that “there is no question that we are living through another surge of hate violence and discrimination against Muslims [and] those perceived to be Muslims. … What we see on the streets often sweeps into the workplace.”
Kapur claimed that workplace discrimination complaints seen since the 2016 presidential election “are comparable to those after 9/11.”
To get a better grasp of the causes of this situation, I reached out to Omar Siddiqui, Director of Special Projects with the FBI, CIA advisor on issues of national security, and an active trial lawyer specializing in employment and labor law.
“Osama bin Laden—That’s your family”
In our conversation, Omar shared a story of one of the numerous clients he had represented: a Muslim American, department manager at a well-known financial institution in California.
“He was a stellar employee. He’d worked there for over 4 years, he achieved extraordinary cost-savings for the company and helped maintain a very thriving salesforce. He was recognized for that. He was getting accolades, awards, and promotions very quickly.”
But something odd started happening.
At some point, the direct supervisor of Omar’s client began to refer to him as “terrorist.” At first, he thought it might have been a weird way of breaking the ice, an attempt at creating a humorous atmosphere in the workplace—one where employees don’t take themselves too seriously.
Of course, Omar’s client made mention to his supervisor that this type of humor was not acceptable.
“But the more he would challenge his manager to stop and the more he would bring that to the attention of HR, the more they would try to ignore it,” Omar says.
One day, his coworkers photoshopped Omar’s client to be standing next to Osama bin Laden. “Look, this is your family, right?,” they asked when presenting the picture to him.
Later, they sent that picture to everyone in the department.
“It was obvious that it was a doctored photo but, of course, the accuracy of it was not the issue.”
Omar’s client went down to his car, locked himself in. He was utterly shocked.
After that incident, he became scared to even enter the office. He started losing sleep. He started getting sick. His doctor put him on medical leave.
Horrifying, right? But the story doesn’t end here.
Omar’s client decided to look for another job. But—
His supervisor would refuse to give him a reference. And it was only then that he decided to seek legal help.
“But that is not an isolated incident,” Omar adds. “Similar stories happen over and over. And we’re living in a time where it’s becoming even more commonplace.”
“We have cases where coworkers make fun of other employees because of their religion or ethnicity countless times. I’ve heard of people calling Muslim American coworkers ‘terrorists’ ‘ISIS lovers,’ ‘Camel jockeys.’ And people actually don’t seem to realize how hurtful these words are.”
Why people of religious minorities are afraid to take action?
What struck me in particular about the story is how late Omar’s client decided to take any legal measures.
Many experts suggest that instances of religious discrimination against American Muslims are underreported. That people are too scared to speak up.
That’s an issue Omar points to as well.
“Many Muslim Americans are very afraid, even to identify themselves as Muslim. They’ll shorten their names from Mohammed to Mo, do whatever they can to hide their identity. And it’s very disappointing, especially in America, which is supposed to be the land for everybody,” Omar lamented.
What can be done to fix this?
Omar suggests very straightforward amendments to ensure a more inclusive workplace.
“There needs to be more education in the workplace. It’s simple as that. HR and supervisors need to have a better understanding of the cultures and religions they have in their workforce. It’d be very important to have regular classes people can come and attend to get a better understanding and recognize when something becomes hateful.”
But he also looks at the issue from a standpoint of a Muslim American.
“As Muslim Americans, especially people like me who were born and raised here, we have to make sure that people know who we are—that we’re just like anyone else.” Omar says.
“In fact, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all Abrahamic faiths. The Koran, the Bible, the Torah are all similar in their beliefs and stories,” he adds.
“We need to be proactive and make sure to come forward and help management understand our religion.”
Managing religious diversity with fairness—what are the benefits?
Even if you happen to be a hatred-blinded xenophobe asking “But what the hell is in it for me?,” here’s some food for thought—
Research has proven that companies who implement inclusive religious policies in hiring, promotion, development, and team management generate 30 percent higher revenue per employee than their competitors.
While balancing people of prayer and places of profit might seem like a tough job, it will actually help maximize the profit, while making the workplace modern and inviting.
It’s a great idea to suggest providing training to employees if you feel that it would be useful—the negligible cost of a department training will pay you back many times over.
Have you ever felt discriminated on the grounds of your religion?
Regardless of your race, religion, ethnicity, if you are discriminated against, you need to stand up and voice a concern.
First, you need to speak with someone who’s subjecting you to that discrimination. If that doesn’t work, bring it to the attention of HR, then to senior management.
That still doesn’t work?
Consult with an attorney to make sure that you can get justice within a courtroom.
“The United States have very stringent laws when it comes to discrimination,” Omar Siddiqui explains.
Nowadays, there are numerous state and federal courts attuned specifically to dealing with the Title VII and discrimination-type claims.
“It’s also very helpful that in many states, even before having to go to court you can file an administrative claim with a Government Agency called the Employment Development Department, or you can have a lawyer file a complaint against your employer—then, the state will automatically investigate the issue.”
Let us know what you think
Have you ever witnessed incidents of religious discrimination in the workplace? Have you noticed any changes in this regard in recent years? What do you think can be done to address the worrisome statistics. Share your thoughts in the comments. We can’t wait to hear from you.