Islam in the workplace

by 13 Dec 2006

In the post-September 11 environment, there are concerns that discrimination in the workplace may be on the rise. Amal Awad reports

Racial and religious discrimination are certainly not new phenomena, and attitudes and treatment of others have always been influenced by geopolitical events. But the issues faced by a growing number of Muslims in Australian workplaces present new challenges for both employees and HR departments. While discrimination tends to focus on discernible characteristics, the discrimination being felt by some Muslims tends more to be based on the visible aspects of their faith.

Some Muslim leaders and academics blame an ignorance of Islam, the influence of negative political rhetoric and general misinformation, which contribute to an atmosphere of tension. As a result of this, they say, discrimination appears to be seeping further into the workplace.

MonashUniversity lecturer and terrorism expert, Luke Howie, believes there is cause for concern. In his PhD research, which was conducted across a variety of workplaces, it was clear many people feared Muslims and both managers and employees were engaging in discriminatory behaviour of which they were ashamed.

He points out that the discrimination is not necessarily overt abuse or intimidation, and it would often affect both the subject of the discrimination and the perpetrator. “It was covert, it was not wanting to deal with people, [it was] breaching key performance indicators.” Howie cites the example of a Melbourne retail organisation in which staff weren’t greeting patrons who appeared to be Muslim, thus not meeting a “six-second bracket” for customer welcomes.

Statistics from the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board indicate a decrease in the number of official complaints of discrimination, yet the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 2003 study, Isma (Listen), showed that most people interviewed said they wouldn’t report incidents of discrimination. This may be due to inadequacy of legislation and the belief that nothing will result from complaints.

While such discrimination may be difficult to prove due to an often covert nature, anecdotal evidence from Muslims, as well as studies such as Howie’s, demonstrate that many believe it is occurring and are feeling its effects. Furthermore, the implications – anxiety, intolerance and tension in the office or business – are widespread, with individual prejudices, rather than institutionalised bigotry, shaping the organisational culture.

The Islamic Council of Victoria’s (ICV) director, Waleed Aly, agrees it can be difficult to attribute certain behaviour or lack of employment to religious discrimination. “Often employers are in a position where they can choose between several candidates or whoever would be outstanding. It’s in those circumstances that the ability for prejudice to sneak in silently is at its highest, because you’re spoilt for choice,” he says.

What also emerge are two main types of barriers Muslims may face in the workplace, says Aly. In the white collar sector, it is a problem of “admission”, usually relating to having an unusual surname or because of Islamic dress. “We get reports of difficulty in getting jobs. But once they’re in, there are not many complaints.”

The other barrier lies in the blue collar sector, where Muslims tend to find “getting the job’s not a problem, but they’re more likely to experience discrimination or prejudice in the workplace”.

Part of the rising discrimination against Muslims, some observers say, may be attributed to the visibility of the faith, which sees Muslim women donning headscarves, applicants having Islamic names, and staff taking time out to pray – all of which may contribute to difficulties in obtaining or keeping employment.

This can force some to dilute their appearances. “You hear stories of name-changing, you also hear stories of taking off headscarves. Basically Muslims de-identifying themselves to the greatest extent possible,”Aly says.

Howie believes HR are willing to embrace multiculturalism, but indicates that some employees did perceive prayer breaks, for example, as denoting special treatment and see such practices as slightly aberrant. “There’s that comment of why can’t they just be like us?”

But it’s also important for Muslims to utilise their talents and sell their skills. “I think if you were an outstanding candidate who offers something truly unique then the fact that you’re a Muslim, or have a funny surname … those factors are not going to hinder you,” Aly says.


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