How to Handle Employee Islamophobia in the Workplace

In the wake of terrorist attacks and divisive political rhetoric, Islamophobia is on the rise. Researchers cite fear as a driving motivator behind many Americans’ unfavorable views towards the religion. This fear manifests itself in various forms ranging from attacks on mosques to discrimination in the workplace.

The Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the nation’s employment anti-discrimination laws, has repeatedly reminded American businesses that they need to accommodate the religious needs of Muslims employees. The EEOC’s statements are more than just friendly reminders, in the past few years the Commission has sued several U.S. businesses for violating Muslim civil rights under Title VII. The suits have ranged from employers not accommodating Muslim employees’ prayer breaks to employers refusing to hire applicants who wore the Muslim headscarf (hijab). One recently settled case, involved two terminated Muslim truck drivers, who citing religious beliefs, refused to transport alcohol for their company.

The EEOC is not only actively encouraging employers to accommodate Muslims in the workplace, they are encouraging regular employees  “to re-affirm these values of tolerance and equality in their interactions with their co-workers and show that harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated in America’s workplaces.” There are active steps employers can take to ensure their workers comply with state and federal laws banning religious-based workplace discrimination.

Here are four hypothetical situations that outline actions employers must take when their employees exhibit islamophobia:

Hiring and Other Employment Decisions

1)  Aliyyah, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab (or head covering), applies for a position as a cashier at XYZ Discount Goods.  An XYZ assistant store manager fears   that Aliyyah’s religious attire will make customers uncomfortable. What should XYZ do?

XYZ should not deny Aliyyah the job due to customer preferences about religious attire.  This would be the same as refusing to hire Aliyyah because she is Muslim.  It would be against the law.  It also would be unlawful for XYZ to assign Aliyyah to a position with no interaction with customers because she wears a hijab.

XYZ Discount Goods should consider proactive measures for preventing discrimination in hiring.  XYZ could remind its managers and employees that discrimination based on religion or national origin is not tolerated by the company in any aspect of employment, including hiring.  Employers may decide to train or retrain all employees who conduct hiring and issue or reissue hiring standards that emphasize objective, job-related criteria.

2)  Susan is an experienced clerical worker who wears a hijab in conformance with her Muslim beliefs.   XYZ Temps places Susan in a long-term assignment with one of its clients. The client contacts XYZ and requests that it direct Susan to remove her hijab while working at the front desk, or that it assign another person to Susan’s position.  According to the client, Susan’s religious attire violates its dress code and presents the “wrong image.” Should XYZ comply with its client’s request?

No.  XYZ Temps may not comply with this client request without violating Title VII, and it should explain its equal employment opportunity (EEO) responsibilities to the client.  If the client does not withdraw the request, thus violating its own EEO obligations, XYZ should place Susan in another assignment at the same rate of pay and decline to assign another worker to the client unless the client changes its practices so that discrimination will not recur.


In the aftermath of major attacks, workplace conversations about current events typically increase.  In an atmosphere of heightened concern and apprehension, some employees may be more likely to make unguarded remarks and others may be more afraid of harassment.  At such times, the EEOC encourages employers to be proactive and publicize (or re-publicize) their anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies and procedures.  The EEOC strongly encourages employees to review and become familiar with these policies and practices.

3)  Muhammad, who is Arab American, works for XYZ Motors, a large used car business. Muhammad meets with his manager and complains that Jeff, one of his coworkers, regularly calls him names like “the local terrorist,” and “ISIS.” How should their manager respond?

Managers and supervisors who learn about objectionable workplace conduct based on religion or national origin are responsible for promptly taking steps to correct the conduct by anyone under their control.  If, after an investigation, XYZ Motors ultimately determines that Jeff has harassed Muhammad, it should take disciplinary action against Jeff that is significant enough to ensure that the harassment does not continue.

Workplace harassment and its costs are often preventable.  Clear and effective policies prohibiting ethnic and religious slurs, or other related offensive conduct, are important to prevent harassment.  Confidential complaint mechanisms for promptly reporting harassment are critical, and these policies should be written to encourage people to come forward.  When harassment is reported, the focus should be on action to end the harassment and correct its effects on the complaining employee.  Corrective action could include counseling, a warning, or more severe discipline for the harasser.

4)  John is Muslim.  In the last few months, a coworker regularly seeks him out for long discussions about Islam, ISIS, and terrorism.  In a routine check-in with his supervisor, John tells the supervisor about these discussions and says that he is increasingly uncomfortable with them.  John expresses concern that the conversations may escalate or spark religious hostility.  What should the supervisor do?

Even if a situation does not amount to illegal harassment, there are still steps an employer can take to prevent the conduct from escalating.

The most effective approach may be simply for John to explain to his coworker that these discussions are actually unwelcome and to ask him to stop.  On the other hand, if John is uncomfortable talking directly to the coworker, or if John has already asked him to stop but he has persisted, the supervisor or other appropriate manager should become involved in accordance with company policy and communicate with the coworker.

If there is no improvement in the coworker’s conduct in response to a direct request, or if the harassment escalates, the employer may choose to take appropriate disciplinary action.  The employer also may choose to reissue workplace policies, or provide training about harassment based on religion and other protected bases.

CREDIT: Some of the content of this post has been copied or adopted from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s publication “Questions and Answers for Employers: Responsibilities Concerning the Employment of Individuals Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern