The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has announced on its website that it continues to focus on what it considers to be ongoing religious and national origin discrimination in the workplace, especially against Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Communities. The EEOC reports that in the initial months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Commission saw a 250% increase in the number of religion-based charges involving Muslims. Since that time, the EEOC states that it has continued to track an increase in such charges, as well as those alleging national origin discrimination against those with Middle Eastern background. While the Commission does not specify how many of those charges were found to have merit, it does report that it has filed nearly 90 lawsuits against employers, many of which involve alleged harassment on the basis of religion and national origin. Thus, it is apparent that the EEOC is aggressively pursuing investigation and enforcement activities in this area.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants on the basis of religion or national origin. The harassment of individuals because of their religion or national origin is also prohibited. Through its interpretations of Title VII, The EEOC has recognized a wide range of actions and conduct that may be potentially unlawful, including: disparate treatment, teasing or insults because of a person’s appearance, customs, language, or accent; requiring employees to speak English in the workplace; disparate treatment, jokes, or insults toward an employee because of the national origin or religion of that person’s spouse; and adverse actions based on perceptions of an employee or applicant’s national origin or religion.
It is important to note that in addition to these prohibitions against discrimination and harassment, Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or applicant, unless doing so would cause an “undue hardship” for the employer. The EEOC has suggested that reasonable accommodation may include, for example, providing employees with leave to attend religious observances, providing time and/or a place to pray, and permitting employees to wear religious attire in the workplace. However, the issue of accommodation requires the employer to consider each request for accommodation on a case-by-case basis in order to determine whether accommodation is possible and reasonable under the circumstances.
The EEOC also states that it has “intensified its outreach” to educate employees in this area of the law by issuing fact sheets on immigrant employee rights, employment discrimination based on religion and national origin, and employer responsibilities under Title VII with respect to the employment of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and Sikhs. These fact sheets provide specific examples of prohibited conduct in the workplace, and also offer instructions on how employees may file charges with the EEOC. Therefore, and in view of the EEOC’s emphasis on this particular form of discrimination, employers should review carefully these fact sheets as a part of their proactive compliance and training measures. Employers should also remember that retaliation against anyone who files a charge or otherwise opposes unlawful discrimination is expressly prohibited under Title VII.