Statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that charges of discrimination based on religion and national origin are the fastest growing categories in the past decade. Of course, that coincides with the aftermath of 9/11 and, rational or not, American anger and suspicions over Middle Eastern Arab communities. This shift in public mood creates a problem for HR professionals, whose job it is to ensure a workplace free from discrimination and harassment―a prejudice-free island in an ocean littered with group hatred. That’s no easy job, as United Parcel Service (UPS) was reminded recently.
Talal Alfaour, a Muslim of Jordanian ancestry, began working for UPS in 1995. Since 2008, he has filed three EEOC complaints against his employer, claiming a wide variety of severe discriminatory conduct, including calling him a terrorist and “Dr. Bomb,” pelting him with rocks and bottles, putting a dead mouse in his lunch bag, and being restricted from hazardous materials for fear that he might blow up the building. Alfaour claims his internal complaints to UPS were ignored and that he was involuntarily transferred to an inferior workstation and subjected to micromanagement.
The part I found strangest was UPS’s reported explanation to the EEOC that Alfaour’s coworkers were “just kidding around.” I’ve thought a lot about that defense over the years. Under the facts of this case, I’d want to give a better explanation to the EEOC.
A protected oasis
More important, you must create a job environment in which racial slurs aren’t considered jokes and a dead mouse in a lunch box is deemed more than a prank. The culture you create must convey that there is no justification for this kind of behavior in the workplace. If you excuse discriminatory behavior as a minor matter, you have no chance of anyone else taking the obligation seriously.
In the outside world, people are allowed to engage in the broadest discussions, so feel free to argue that the TSA should profile Arab air travelers, and I’ll argue to the contrary. In the outside world, people can rail against abortion, press neighbors to join their church, and argue passionately about religion or presidential politics―but not in the workplace.
No one may be subjected to discriminatory treatment at work, and HR is the sheriff when it comes to keeping that peace. The job gets harder when world events impinge on that peace. So whatever tensions broil between America and Islamic world capitals and no matter how violent the protests or heated the rhetoric, those factors need to be kept insulated from the workplace.
One tool to accomplish that goal is regular diversity training. It ensures your employees and supervisors are clear about boundaries― and the serious consequences of crossing them. Also make everyone aware early and often that you will never accept discriminatory workplace conduct as “just kidding around.”
Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco. He is a member of the Employers Counsel Network and editor of California Employment Law Letter. You can reach him at 415-541-0200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.