Arabic employees continue to be the victims of backlash discrimination in the workplace by employers that allow their prejudices, or the prejudices of their customers and clients, to affect their employment decisions. Here are recent examples.
An Arabic employee claimed that his supervisor told him he would be reassigned because of concerns about his ability to perform his job due to the situation in the country after 9/11. He mentioned that the fact that the employee was Muslim and from the Middle East, combined with the fact that he traveled extensively to meet customers, "were not good for the company." The supervisor offered him a lower-ranking job instead. When the employee complained to HR about the supervisor's remarks and plans to reassign him because of his race, ethnic, and religious background, the company stripped him of his duties and later terminated him. The employee subsequently sued for national origin discrimination and won a whopping $1.56 million. (Elestwani v. Nicolet Biomedical, D.C. W.D.WI, No. 04-C-0947-S, 2005)
In another case, a company executive took it upon himself to call an Arabic employee "Manny" or "Hank," instead of his real name, Mamdouh El-Hakem. The exec explained that a Western name would increase the employee's chances for success and be more acceptable to the company's clientele.
After objecting for almost a year to no avail, the employee sued for national origin discrimination. A jury agreed that the executive had created a hostile work environment and awarded the employee over $30,000. A federal appeals court affirmed the finding. Said the court: A group's ethnic characteristics encompass more than skin color and physical characteristics. Changing an ethnic name to a non-ethnic name constitutes discrimination even when racial or ethnic epithets are not used. (El-Hakem v. BJY, Inc., 9th Cir., No. 0335514, 2005)
Despite your personal feelings about the events of 9/11 or the war on terrorism, you cannot allow those feelings to justify any type of discrimination or harassment in the workplace. Not only must you refrain from discriminating against or harassing employees based on their national origin, but you also need to make sure that you don't allow your perceptions of your customers and clients' attitudes toward Arabic employees to influence your employment decisions.
As with any kind of discrimination or harassment, the keys to defending yourself and your company from legal liability are:
backing up adverse employment actions with solid business reasons and objective documentation; and
putting an end to any harassing behavior.