Don’t stop at religious accommodation; end harassment, too

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Many organizations pride themselves on offering religious accommodations. But some may be a little too quick to pat themselves on the back. It’s not enough to simply offer religious accommodations such as flexible schedules or shift swapping to allow worship or even prayer breaks.

Employers also must make sure there’s no co-worker backlash.

Recent case: Clinton Ingram converted to Islam while serving in the U.S. military. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he took a job with Sunbelt Rentals. Because of his faith, he asked for accommodations—time off on Friday afternoons to attend weekly congregational prayer sessions and short breaks during the day to pray. He also was allowed to keep a beard and wear a kufi, traditional headgear worn by Muslim men.

Ingram’s co-workers soon began what he thought was a harassment campaign based on his religion. He told supervisors that he was constantly put down, called names such as  “Taliban” and “towel head,” and questioned about his loyalty to America. Plus, sometimes derogatory cartoons would show up on the bulletin board. One depicted several Muslims with bombs strapped to their bodies, and the caption, “Okay, pay attention. I’m only showing you how this works once.”

When supervisors did nothing, Ingram complained to HR, which promised an investigation. But that investigation led to just one change—everyone was told to respect all faiths. The HR office told Ingram that everyone was “denying everything,” and therefore there was little more it could do. Ingram claimed the harassment started up again.

He sued, alleging a hostile environment. Sunbelt tried to argue that it had acted responsibly—it arranged religious practice accommodations, investigated the incidents and told everyone that it would not tolerate religious harassment.

The trial court dismissed the case, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, reinstating the case and ordering a jury trial. It said that the evidence pointed to “willful blindness,” and said the mere existence of an anti-harassment policy wasn’t enough. The policy must have teeth. (EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, No. 07-1123, 4th Cir., 2008)

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