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Mohammed, You Too Are My Brother: Preventing Backlash Against Muslim and Arab-Americans in the Workplace

As an HR professional, I consider one of my most profound responsibilities in the near future to be helping to curb backlash against the Muslim and Arab workers in America. Not just because harassment and discrimination on the basis of religion, race, and national origin are illegal, not just because such divisive behavior will further harm our businesses and organizations economically, but because I am first and foremost a human being – a child of God, as are my 7 million Muslim and 6 million Arab brothers in America. Fear, ignorance or hate may cause you to recoil from this statement. If so, this article is exactly what you should read as I outline not only the ethical but also the business imperatives driving my statements. 

We are already witnessing heartbreaking examples of mistreatment of Arab-Americans in the wake of these terrorist acts. In acts eerily reminiscent of the World War II treatment of Japanese-Americans, Americans are lashing out at what they see – surface similarities to the terrorists.  

Shots fired at a mosque in Texas and Arab businesses in Indiana. Angry marchers and anonymous bomb-throwers in Chicago. Vandalism at houses of worship and Islamic centers from Virginia to California. And everywhere, threats, slurs and obscenities. Arab-Americans being targeted as scapegoats,

Need more examples? Read Justice Department Joins with Arab Americans to Combat Hate Crimes,   

These particular terrorists of 9-11-01 do appear to be Islamic radicals of Arab ethnicity, but theirs were individual crimes perpetrated by the people and terrorist group itself, not acts sanctioned by or related to Arabs and Muslims. There were Arab Americans and Muslims who died in the World Trade Center and among the rescuers trying to save people. Arab Americans of all religions, including Muslims, have been praying for the victims and donating blood for the survivors.  Advice to Arab-American Parents – Helping Children Cope,

Yet why must we non-Arab, non-Islamic Americans strike out at the Arab and Muslim members of our family, and the people we even just perceive to be Arabs or of Islamic faith? Is to be Arab or Muslim to be responsible for these attacks – guilty, culpable, one with terrorism? If so, then all white, Christian U.S. citizens must accept the same blame and stereotyping for the acts of the terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who justified his acts in the name of Christianity. Terrorists are a unique sub-culture of (in)humanity. Even if Timothy McVeigh chanted Psalms while wrapped in an American flag and believed he was acting out God’s will when he bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, his was not an action of the U.S. or an action of Christians – it was the act of a terrorist – just as the acts of these hijackers were not the acts of Arabs or Muslims, but the acts of terrorists. Seeking an outlet for our fear and anger may be natural, but we do not have to make human scapegoats based on religion and ethnicity.

We are unbelievably scared and sad, but we are a land of great diversity with room for all types of differences, even now.  And we as employers, managers, human resources professionals, and U.S. workers must recognize that we have the power of influence, during our working hours at a minimum, to prevent backlash against innocent people. As employers, we even have the right and obligation to set legal, reasonable rules and require our employees to comply. These rules and expectations will set the tone for a productive, team-oriented approach.  

The following are several actions for employers to implement, which will help all employees recover and prevent retaliation against Middle Eastern employees.

  • Facilitate communication between employees of different heritage. This can be accomplished either in small group meetings, or in conjunction with training (such as diversity or anti-harassment/discrimination). The goal should be to break down the walls of ignorance and assumptions. Since ignorance is often the genesis of hate-based actions, consider educating your employees on Islam (for resources on Islam, consult or In an anti-harassment/discrimination training class held after the tragedy, facilitated by one of my co-workers, the management level employees of a global company engaged in a dialogue about the attacks and how to best help their co-workers work through the aftermath of the events of Tuesday. A manager from India who had lived all over the world commented that the American people were handling this tragedy very maturely. Praising our educated public, he noted that many other countries would have already started rioting and killing thousands in retribution. The rest of the audience not only appreciated his remarks toward the American public, but also enjoyed the input from a citizen of another country. This shared perspective reminded the group that they are not alone, others support them and that sensitivity toward others is highly regarded.
  • Provide or allow forum for venting anger and fear. Face it: you are mad and angry, and so are your employees. If you do not acknowledge it and let it out appropriately, it will release itself later in inappropriate ways, maybe even against Muslim or Arab-American co-workers. Whether this anger venting occurs in facilitated communication or a bulletin board, heart-to-heart talks with a co-worker or a trusted HR professional, or use of an EAP or other counselor, employers can be instrumental in helping their workers past the worst of the fear and anger, and back into cooperation and productivity.
  • Train your managers. Managers must understand the human and legal impact of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, or national origin. Now more than ever, give them the tools they need to do their jobs within the bounds of law and decency. Help them understand that prompt response is necessary should employees complain of harassing or discriminatory treatment.
  • Investigate complaints. If any supervisory-level or higher or HR employee has knowledge of potentially harassing, discriminatory or violent conduct, you must immediately undertake an impartial and thorough investigation followed by appropriate corrective action, designed to stop the conduct and prevent it from reoccurring. Normally we think of these investigations in conjunction with sexual harassment, but they will be just as critical regarding actions taken against Muslim and Arab-Americans.
  • Update policies and procedures. Are your crisis procedures up to date? Your travel policies? Do you know how to deal with insurance, leave of absence and medical leave issues that may arise in the wake of this tragedy and potential military action? Do your EEO and harassment policies cover religion, race, and national origin? If you are in a state that protects employees on the basis of citizenship, the policies must cover that characteristic as well.
  • Maintain a non-discriminatory policy regarding reference and background checks. Reference and background checks (to the extent that law in your state(s) allows these checks) should be conducted in a non-discriminatory manner. If you do a check on an Islamic applicant for a certain position, all other applicants for the same position should undergo the same check. And if you are conducting checks based on suspicion, make sure that the suspicion is based on credible, reasonable evidence – not on an illegal reason such as religion or ethnicity.
  • Be a role model. Your employees look up to you as their manager or HR contact. If you scapegoat based on religion and ethnicity, you are sanctioning similar behavior by them, maybe even teaching them how to do it. However, if you model respectful behavior and refrain from rushing to judgment, that will be their example to follow. You are in a position of leadership, so use it wisely.

As employers, we cannot change how our employees feel, believe or think unless they are willing to change, but we can require them to follow rules against harassment and discrimination during working hours. We can educate, we can provide opportunities for dialogue, and we can facilitate healing in a way that is beneficial to the efficient workings of our organizations. And who knows – we could have a far greater impact on our co-workers than we ever dreamed possible and actually spread a message of respect and reason that extends far outside the workplace.