The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued a new set of guidelines as reminders to employers and employees that discrimination based on origin, race, or religion violates federal law.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. The law generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments.
The recent EEOC guidelines are aimed at both employers and employees, and are primarily in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. According to the EEOC, world events “have heightened concerns about workplace protections for all employees, including individuals who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern.”
Two separate guidelines have been issued, one for employers and one for employees. Both present the same hypothetical instances of workplace discrimination, including accommodating prayer during the work day and the harassment of employees who are Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent.
While it is uncertain whether some of the scenarios presented in the guidelines are indeed discrimination, the message from the EEOC is clear: employers have a duty to investigate and take appropriate action to end claims of harassment and discrimination, regardless of the intent behind the behavior.
One hypothetical scenario involves a Muslim worker who tells his boss that he is uncomfortable because a co-worker regularly approaches him to discuss Islam, ISIS, and terrorism. The EEOC advises that employers must make sure the co-worker understands the Muslim worker is uneasy with the discussions, and the co-worker should be asked to stop initiating them. According to the EEOC, while the action of speaking to a co-worker about current events may not be illegal harassment, an employer must still take steps to prevent the conduct from escalating.
The EEOC also cautions that some employees may be fearful of co-workers they perceive as susceptible to “radicalization.” The EEOC advises that employers be proactive in determining whether employees may be experiencing either overt or subtle harassment in the workplace due to their religion, national origin, or ethnicity.
The EEOC further suggests that now is a good time for employers to republish the company’s harassment policy, as a reminder that unwelcome, offensive, and harassing behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace.
The attorneys in Sommers Schwartz’s Employment Litigation Group are knowledgeable in all aspects of discrimination laws. If you suspect that you have been the victim of discrimination or unlawful treatment in the workplace, please contact us to learn how we can help.