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Preventing Religious & Ethnic Harassment in Today’s Political Climate

May 30, 2017
HR Acuity


Today’s political environment, regardless of your political leanings, has given rise to some discomforting stories of harassment and discrimination. Consider that of Ramtin Sabet, a former police officer for the City of Chicago. He has brought suit against the city because of alleged religious discrimination from others in his department, including frequent references to him as “Mr. Taliban,” jokes about his food choices and other distasteful comments.

Add to that the recent study revealing that 60 percent of Muslims and 40 percent of Jewish individuals felt like they were discriminated against in 2016, and the scene that is portrayed is one that most business leaders are not comfortable with. The positive side of this issue is that company leaders can make equal treatment a priority, protecting not only the company’s name, but the freedoms of its workforce as well.


While ignoring a problem and hoping that it will go away might be a strategy for some, truly preventing these types of harassment requires a more focused effort. The three-pronged approach includes:

  1. A strategy for responding to allegations of harassment
  2. A strong supervisor training element
  3. A deeper-rooted culture of respect

By making each of these a part of the company’s default approach to harassment, each employee can take on a measure of responsibility for seeing and preventing issues wherever they may crop up.

In a recent article about continued gender discrimination at Uber, we pointed out how to create a plan for a company and its HR team to respond to harassment claims. By having an action plan in place, the investigator can respond quickly and objectively to any complaints from employees. Companies that do not take these claims seriously will face fines and other unpleasant consequences, according to the historical records available in the EEOC claims database.

In addition, a solid supervisor onboarding program is a critical link in the chain. Because supervisors are usually the primary point of contact for the employees, it pays to have them adequately trained to understand the requirements for religious accommodations, what constitutes harassment and how to know when to bring in help from HR. Think about how many stories don’t make it into the headlines simply because companies have trained their front line supervisors on how to accommodate religious needs. Religious accommodation training should include core topics such as:

  • Work schedules – Do employees need to take off specific days?
  • Clothing – Is there a requirement that the employee wears a specific type of clothing?
  • Prayer – Do employees need time for prayer or other religious activities?

Finally, success requires more than just one token workforce diversity training session. According to 2016 findings from an EEOC task force, training does not prevent harassment. “For [training] to matter, employees have to feel their leaders are being authentic. They have to believe that leaders mean what they say [in order to prevent harassment],” asserts Chai R. Feldblum, a co-chair of the task force.

In essence, some companies are putting a band-aid on an open wound and hoping for the best. They should instead be creating a culture of mutual respect among employees. One way to start this is by investing in unconscious bias training to help each individual bridge this gap. Another way is by giving employees an opportunity, whether through training role plays or simulations, to see what harassment looks like in reality. When faced with the ugly truth of workplace discrimination, it’s easier to find common ground.

No company, regardless of size, industry or geography, is exempt from the need to treat people like the valued resources they are. It’s possible, and valuable, to prevent religious and ethnic harassment, but companies can’t just pay lip service to the idea — they must focus efforts on creating an intentional atmosphere with the right training, culture and resources to make this work.

HR Acuity