How to combat the rise of Islamophobia in the workplace

In the wake of recent political events, Tasneem Abdur-Rashid looks at the impact current affairs has on Muslims in the UK and how employers can equip themselves with the tools to combat religious discrimination in their workplace.

As Shamima Begum continues to dominate the news and the debate regarding her future reaches an uproar, once again, the three million Muslims living peacefully in the UK find themselves in the awkward position of having to defend their existence. From racial slurs being hurled in the streets to job applications being rejected, Islamophobia is on the rise, and manifests itself in every level of society, from the highest institutions right down to the streets.

In fact, recent Home Office data revealed that more than half of religious hate crime – 52% – was aimed at Muslims. Additionally, in 2017, a report by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) found that young Muslims in the UK are being held back from reaching their potential in every stage of their lives.

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson from Sheffield Hallam University, who led the research, said, “Muslims are excluded, discriminated against, or failed, at all stages of their transition from education to employment. Taken together, these contributory factors have profound implications for social mobility.”

According to the report, some of these barriers include:

  • Stereotyping and low expectations from teachers
  • Minority ethnic-sounding names reducing the likelihood of people being offered an interview
  • Young Muslims fearing becoming targets of bullying and harassment
  • Women wearing headscarves facing particular discrimination once entering the workplace

Researchers for the report also found that every time there was a terror attack, Muslims felt a need to apologise and explain themselves, even at work. From casual comments to in-depth interrogations by their colleagues, many Muslim employees feel spotlighted whenever Islam or Muslims hit the headlines.

Religious discrimination is against the law

Religious discrimination – whether it’s at work, in education, in housing, or when you’re buying goods or services – is against the law; and it is an actual criminal offence to attack (verbally or physically) because of religion or lack of religion.

According to Citizens Advice, in the workplace, in particular, religious discrimination includes:

  • Dismissing you because of your religion
  • Advertising for job applicants of one religion only
  • Requiring you to dress in a certain way, for example, requiring all women to wear a short skirt. This would not be acceptable for women of several different religions
  • Requiring you not to wear sacred items. For example, a Sikh man might be required to remove their kara (symbolic bracelet). However, if the employer can justify this on health and safety grounds, this wouldn’t count as discrimination
  • Making you work at times that you cannot work because of your religion
  • Victimisation
  • Bullying at work because of your religion. This is also known as harassment

>See also: Obsessing over niqabs ignores everyday Islamophobia in the workplace

Religious discrimination and harassment at work

There’s obvious discrimination – stopping someone from wearing religious items, for example – and then there’s subtle harassment that is not always easy to define. Because of this inability to explain it, many victims let discriminatory comments pass in the name of ‘jokes’ or ‘banter’. Additionally, for discrimination to occur, offence does not have to be intended. There’s a fine line between curiosity and harassment, jokes and insults, that can turn your previously successful workspace into a discrimination investigation.

Farhana Ghaffar, a 25-year-old Muslim woman who acted as a researcher for the SMC study, said she was “incredibly shocked” by the findings. “It ranged from assumptions that they (Muslim women) were forced to wear the headscarf, to jokes and casual comments in the workplace about Muslims.”

Homa Wilson, a partner in the employment team at London solicitors Hodge Jones & Allen, explains that the legal definition of harassment can pose difficulties for employers. Harassment will occur where a person engages in unwanted conduct, related to someone’s religion, which has the purpose or effect of either violating the other’s dignity, creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

How to promote a tolerant workplace

While you can’t control everything your employees talk about, you can definitely put in place the correct tools to minimise risk.

  • Policies, policies, policies

At the core of every organisation is its policies. It’s important to have a strong set of equal opportunity, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that leave no room for discrimination. This must also include an up-to-date complaints procedure so that employees know exactly what to do if they experience discrimination and what the repercussions are. However, there’s no point in a policy no-one knows about so ensure that all employees receive copies of this and perhaps organise a HR policy training/briefing session as a refresher.

  • Set the tone

An organisation’s culture is set at the top. You can promote an inclusive workspace by hiring diverse staff and ensuring that all staff are treated equally and promoted according to merit. It goes without saying that the leaders shouldn’t indulge in any unnecessary conversation that may be construed as religious discrimination, regardless of what’s happening in the news. One important thing to note from a legal perspective is that lack of diversity on a business’s website and corporate literature can also be used as anecdotal evidence in a legal claim.

  • Open the doors for communication

Your staff should feel like they can approach you about any concerns they have in the workplace. Make sure your door’s always open so that if anyone experiences discrimination, they can come to you knowing that you’ll listen and you’ll take the appropriate action.

  • Nip it in the bud before it’s too late

If you receive any complaints or even witness any (potentially) discriminatory behaviour from an employee, address it before it escalates into an investigation. This can be anything, from constantly pestering a Muslim colleague about their views on ISIS/terrorism/Israel, to making ‘jokes’ about religious attire/beliefs. Don’t ever write it off as an innocent personality flaw and don’t assume that staff have a good understanding of what type of ‘banter’ is inappropriate or offensive. You can be vicariously liable for discrimination – whether or not you knew about or approved.

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