Combating Islamophobia in the Workplace

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What is Islamophobia?  

Islamophobia includes fear, hatred, or prejudice towards Islam, Muslims, or people perceived to be Muslim. When Islamophobia appears in the workplace, it may lead to employees being harassed, marginalized, or discriminated against.  Islamophobia can also manifest itself as a form of national origin or ancestry discrimination where employees are treated unfavorably because they are from a Muslim-majority country or region, belong to a particular ethnicity, appear to be of a particular ethnic background, or possess traits associated (or thought to be associated) with the Islamic world.

Islamophobia, which rests on prejudices and misconceptions about the Islamic religion, has deep historical roots and has become more pronounced during times of political and international conflict, such as the September 11, 2001, attacks.

What can Islamophobia look like in the workplace?

It can take many different forms. Possible scenarios include:

  • A business refuses to hire a Muslim woman because of her religious practice of wearing a hijab, or religious headscarf.
  • A Middle Eastern employee is constantly called a “terrorist” by managers and co-workers. His company has done nothing to stop the harassment, even after he reported it to management.
  • An Arab Muslim employee is fired by her supervisor, who had shared with other co-workers that they did not want the Muslim employee around because she adhered to Islam and “where her people come from.”
  • Several Afghan American employees are singled out by their general manager during a staff meeting in language with violent overtones. After reporting the incident, they experienced even more verbal harassment and heightened scrutiny of their work performance, leading them to feel they had no option but to resign.
  • An employer denying a request made by a Muslim employee requesting a religious accommodation, such as time off for prayer, while approving any non-Muslim co-worker’s comparable religious accommodation request.  

What federal and state laws protect me from Islamophobia in the workplace? 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law, makes it illegal for an employer, government, employment agencies, and labor unions to harass or discriminate against employees on the basis of religion or national origin. Under Title VII, it is also illegal for an employer to adopt an employment policy or practice that disproportionately adversely impacts workers of a certain national origin or religion and is not job-related or necessary to its business. 

Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), local, state, and private employers and employment agencies are likewise prohibited from discriminating against job applicants and employees because of their national origin, ancestry, or religion. This includes discrimination with respect to application screening, interviewing, hiring, promoting, terminating, or transferring employees. This also applies to an employer’s working conditions, such as internal policies and compensation.

Both Title VII and the FEHA impose an affirmative duty on employers to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs, dress, activities or observances after being given reasonable advance notice. This can include providing breaks and a space for an employee to pray during work hours, accommodating special dietary restrictions or requirements, or accommodating an employee’s religious wear or grooming practices.

An employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, unless it can show that the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” under Title VII or “significant difficulty or expense” under FEHA.  Under both laws, employers must consider all available alternatives to try to grant the religious accommodation, and if they deny the request, employers will need to show that the burden upon them is substantial given the nature and operation of the business. The burden must be considered “excessive” or “unjustifiable”; it cannot be de minimis, or “very small or trifling.” An employer also may not deny accommodations on the basis of another employee’s bias or hostility towards a religious practice or observance.

Under California’s Ralph Civil Rights Act, you may also have the right to compensation if you have experienced violence, harassment, intimidation, or threats of violence due to personal characteristics like your race, national origin, or religion. See our Victims of Hate Violence or Threats of Violence factsheet on eligibility requirements and possible remedies.

What can I do if I am experiencing Islamophobia at my place of employment?

  • Document as much as you can: Keep any and all copies of correspondence that you send to your employer or that your employer sends you. Write down any incidents of discrimination or harassment that you experience. Make sure to include times, dates, people involved, witnesses, and a detailed description of what occurred. 
  • Figure Out Where to Report/ File a Claim: You may first want to try to resolve the situation by speaking with your supervisor or manager. Look at your employee handbook or go to your human resources office to see if there is a grievance procedure to follow. Importantly, you must make a complaint to your employer if you later choose to bring a claim of harassment.  If you belong to a union, you may also want to talk to your union representative.

Additionally, you can file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 300 days of the discriminatory act, or with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) within three years of the discriminatory act. See our Discrimination and Harassment in Employment and How to File a Charge of Discrimination factsheets for more information about employer size eligibility requirements and how to file a claim with either agency. 

Relevant Legal Aid at Work Fact Sheets

External Resources