Hostility At Work Is Expensive (And Wrong)

Late last week, a jury in Missouri awarded $5 million in punitive damages to a woman who proved she was subjected to a hostile work environment because she converted to Islam.

According to published reports, the woman, who was a network technician for a telephone company, had been in her job for six years when she converted to Islam in 2005. Soon after converting she was subjected to name-calling (such as “terrorist”) and being told she was “going to hell” by co-workers and managers. A manager also pressured her to remove the hijab (head scarf) she wore to comply with her religion and even grabbed it off of her head one time. This behavior went on for 3 years.

Obviously, the jury hearing the case was nearly as offended as the employee. The huge award — intended to punish her employer — may well be the largest jury verdict in an employment discrimination case in Missouri state history, according to reports. Missouri is the “Show-Me” state, and she obviously showed a jury that her employer needed to be taught a hard lesson. Beyond that, this case is striking for a number of reasons, and brings to mind many questions.

While the jury award will be reduced due to legal limits on punitive damages awards, the jury’s reaction should resonate with every HR professional. You are likely asking yourself questions such as: “Where was HR?” “Was there training for managers and employees?” “What was that manager thinking?” “How did this go on for so long?” All good questions, and clearly any answers provided by the company at trial did not change the jury’s mind.

No one should question that this type of behavior can create a hostile work environment that violates Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination. As this jury verdict dramatically proves, failure to comply with the law can be expensive. But, it is not just monetary damages in court that will add up for the company here. What about other employees at the company who learn about this case? What will they think of their employer, their managers, and their HR leadership? How will other Muslim employees feel? Might they look elsewhere for a job?

What about other employees who worked with this woman who were not part of the harassment but were aware of it? How did it make them feel? Why did they (apparently) not voice concerns or ask their co-workers or manager to stop treating this woman so awfully due to her religion? What about any other employees of other faiths? How did they feel watching what their co-worker was subjected to for being Muslim?

How about customers of this business? How do they feel about their phone company now? What about customers who are Muslim? Think this might encourage them to switch? (In such a competitive business, customers switch for far less compelling reasons…)

The damage this type of discriminatory behavior causes runs far deeper than the jury verdict and the damages awarded (no matter how large). This situation will leave a scar locally and far beyond. Not only is this is in the media, the rumor mill about the case is probably far more sensational than the actual egregious facts. Stories about this case will remain for years, and may end up being part of this company’s “lore” for future employees.

HR professionals have to deal with these types of issues and behavior when they arise. But they also try to prevent such behavior, through training, fostering diversity and understanding, and being available to employees who believe they are being mistreated (or others who witness mistreatment) at the beginning, before things have gotten to this level. Clearly, this employer’s HR function did not “function” properly. Hopefully, this company is working to figure out why and make sure it does not happen again. This case should also make you think critically about whether such events could happen at your company, and what steps you can take to make sure your HR function would do its job to prevent, address and stop any such behavior.