The EEOC has released several new guidance tools, for both employers and employees, focused upon religious and national origin discrimination against people who are (or are perceived to be) Muslim. This focus on religious and national origin discrimination is particularly important for retail employers because retailers often require employees to follow dress codes or work at times that may conflict with religious observance.

In December 2015, EEOC Chair Jenny Yang released a statement highlighting the need for employers to “remain vigilant” in light of the recent terrorist attacks. Yang commended employers that have “taken steps to issue or re-issue policies preventing harassment, retaliation, and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.” At the same time this statement was released, the EEOC also released two technical guidance tools regarding religious discrimination: “Questions and Answers for Employers: Responsibilities Concerning the Employment of Individuals Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern” (“Employer Q&A”) and a similar guide for employees.

The Employer Q&A does the following:

  • provides helpful insight on the various measures that employers should undertake to avoid violations of Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on religion and national origin, among other protected categories;
  • addresses questions about hiring and other employment decisions, harassment, religious accommodation, and background investigations;
  • reminds employers that they may not discriminate against an individual because the individual’s religious garb may make customers feel uncomfortable; and
  • emphasizes the need to engage in an interactive process with employees who request a religious accommodation, such as time off for religious holidays and exceptions to dress and grooming codes.

When evaluating whether the religious accommodation will cause an undue hardship, the EEOC (through the Employer Q&A) explains that employers may not speculate on whether other employees may seek the same accommodation and make decisions based on those speculations. Rather, each accommodation request must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Earlier this year, the EEOC joined forces with other federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, to create an interagency initiative aimed at religious bias. As part of this initiative, in March 2016, the EEOC released another technical guidance tool titled “What You Should Know About Religious and National Origin Discrimination Against Those Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern” (“What You Should Know Guidance”).

Among other things, the What You Should Know Guidance:

  • summarizes some of the ways in which discrimination against individuals who are (or could be perceived to be) Muslim or Middle Eastern can materialize in the workplace;
  • reminds employers of their obligations to prevent and correct unlawful discrimination or harassment, and provide reasonable religious accommodations;
  • points out several recent cases brought against retailers that involve claims of religious and national origin discrimination and harassment, or a failure to accommodate based on these factors; and
  • highlights the increase in litigation in these areas (in particular, the What You Should Know Guidance reports that, since 9/11, there has been a 250 percent increase in EEOC charges involving religious discrimination against Muslims).

These guidance tools serve as a follow up to the EEOC’s previously released guidance on religious garb and grooming in the workplace, which provides even more detail on how employers should address these issues. Given the EEOC’s increased scrutiny of religious and national origin discrimination against people who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern, retailers should be particularly wary of religious or national origin bias. Retailers can work toward preventing this type of bias in the workplace by reviewing and disseminating their anti-discrimination policies and providing training to employees and managers.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five New Challenges Facing Retail Employers.”