In 1999, when Susan Bashir began working for Southwestern Bell, a unit of AT&T, she was Christian. In 2005, she converted to Islam and, well, her world changed. Bashir alleged her managers and co-workers began calling her a “terrorist” as well as other derogatory names and also made fun of her hijab (a religious head scarf.) She told the jury that at one point her manager tried to pull off her hijab after she refused to remove it.
Bashir filed complaints internally with HR and externally with the EEOC, and was ultimately fired from her position in 2010. Last week, a jury ordered AT&T to pay Bashir $120,000 in actual damages plus $5 million in punitive damages.
A few lessons from this case:
1. Train managers and employees that picking on someone or treating them differently because of their religious beliefs or dress is unlawful and would violate your policies.
2. Managers should also be trained to understand the nuances of religious accommodation – handling requests, options for accommodation, as well as hardship issues. All requests must go through HR and hopefully get approval from your employment attorney.
3. Focus on respect in the workplace – in addition to having a policy, make respect a key value and part of the mission of the company. Focus on inclusion, not exclusion.
4. Be responsive when you get a complaint and follow your policies. Apparently, AT&T had a great policy, but failed to follow it.