When does name-calling become religious harassment?


XYZ Motors, a large used car business, has several employees who are observant Sikhs or Muslims and wear religious head coverings. Ollie, a manager, becomes aware that an employee named Bill regularly calls these coworkers names like "diaper head," "bag head," and "the local terrorists," and that he has intentionally embarrassed them in front of customers by claiming that they are incompetent. He can't decide whether to let the employees work it out amongst themselves or if he should tell Bill to knock it off. Should Ollie do anything?


Yes. Managers and supervisors who learn about objectionable workplace conduct based on religion or national origin are responsible for taking steps to stop the conduct by anyone under their control. Under Title VII, religious harassment may occur when an employee is subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct based on religion. Harassment may include offensive remarks about a person's religious beliefs or practices, or verbal or physical mistreatment that is motivated by the victim's religious beliefs or practices. Although the law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, such conduct rises to the level of illegal harassment when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment action, such as the victim being fired or demoted.

Employers should have a well-publicized and consistently applied anti-harassment policy that clearly explains what is prohibited; provides multiple avenues for complaints to management; and ensures prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations and appropriate corrective action. The policy also should assure complainants that they are protected against retaliation. An employer is liable for harassment by coworkers and third parties where it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action. Once an employer is on notice of potential religious harassment, the employer should take steps to stop the conduct. To prevent conflicts from escalating to the level of a Title VII violation, employers should immediately intervene when they become aware of abusive or insulting conduct, even absent a complaint.

Source: EEOC Publication: "Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities,” https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_religious_garb_grooming.cfm, reported in Employment Practices Guide, New Developments ¶5397.

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