Are You an ‘Accidental Discriminator’?

78618268Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went missing in transit, bringing the fear of terrorism back into the psyche of all of us while getting every informed person to spare a thought and a prayer for those on board.

If human intervention is found to be the cause of this atrocity, will emotions run high against the nationality, religion or race of the person/people involved? Apparently the answer is ‘Yes’,according to the results of a scientifically validated study conducted in France by a Stanford professor who assessed discrimination faced by Muslim job applicants! The research is now being extended to other countries like Britain. Unemployment among Muslims in Britain, at 13 percent, is three times higher than that of others; while in France, at 28 percent, it is much higher than the 11 percent for all others. Not surprising, they are also placed much lower on the levels of average family income.

Closer to home in Quebec, Canada, the government has decided to demonstrate its religious neutrality by prohibiting all public employees from wearing overt religious symbols to work. The rules include a strict prohibition against covering one’s face in any manner and specifically forbid certain headgear. Pictures indicate the banned headgear without alluding to the specific religion which prescribes them. These restrictions are being hotly debated as we speak.

PREMIUM CONTENT: Contingent Workforce Legislative and Regulatory Update

In the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for making it difficult for American businesses to practice such discrimination against applicants as well as workers. But, we still see discrimination suits being filed against employers by disgruntled workers who find their religious practices coming into conflict with their employer’s expectations of their work practices or personal grooming. States like California recently amended their anti-discrimination law to prevent employers from discriminatory actions such as refusing to allow workers to interact with the general public because of their dress or appearance.

Most companies understand and prevent against the most blatant and obvious forms of discrimination such as refusing to hire someone of a particular race or religion, or offering unequal compensation.  However, many discriminatory practices are less obvious, and often unintentional.  Let us discuss some common practices which could bring trouble to the employers’ doorstep when interviewing or employing persons of a different faith or national origin:

  • Establishing dress codes or appearance standards that interfere with some religious observances and practices. Issues surface when specifying the length of worker’s beard/stubble, clothing, head wear, jewelry or items carried by or displayed on the worker.
  • Considering absence from work for observance of a religious holiday acceptable for some groups but not for others.  Consistency is key; corporate policies cannot interfere with religious observations but they should specify a universally applied approach to accounting and compensation for the absence from work.
  • Discrimination through deliberate omission from opportunities for interaction and socialization with peer groups.  Business is frequently conducted in informal settings such as sporting events or ‘after work’ gatherings.  If workers can demonstrate that they were excluded from these events – and participation directly led to promotions or other career advancement benefits – you will be found guilty of discriminating.
  • Dealing with workers who need improvement.Inability to deliver on the job cannot be answered by training in some cases and termination in others. Similarly with tardiness and other workplace issues.
  • Creating an uncomfortable work environment.  Use of offensive remarks about appearance, racial jokes, use of racially derogatory words, phrases, epithets; use of gestures or pictures that would offend a particular racial or religious  group and negative comments about an individual’s skin are all prohibited. If others in the workplace are indulging in such activities, it is the responsibility of the supervisor/manager to put a stop to such practices.Indications that “everybody laughed” or “he never said that the comments bothered him” have been proven to not be an effective defense against discrimination suits.

At all times, employers must be consistent in their practices.  Corporate policies should include a code of business ethics that specifies acceptable behavior.  Rules should anticipate and define accommodations to be made for religious observances.  Employers should document their decisions and actions, enumerating upon the reasons behind their decisions. In developing policies, it is important for an employer to consider extenuating cases resulting from religious beliefs and practices. When rejecting a reasonable request for accommodation from a worker, the employer must have a valid reason for doing so, supported by business interests.

MORE: How much slack is in the labor market?

Lalita Vempati

Lalita Vempati
Lalita Vempati is a marketing communications specialist at DCRWorkforce. She has extensive experience in managing operations, human capital and training and development.

Lalita Vempati

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