Written by Jon Buchler, FEI EAP Counselor

A fictional corporation operates an assembly facility in a community where a significant number of Muslims live. Almost two hundred assembly workers are employed at the facility and, over the past two years, the company has hired 12 Muslims to work there. They’ve found the Muslim workers to be reliable and productive, and there have been no reported incidents in the workplace involving them.

The Muslim staff generally keep to themselves and none of their coworkers have reached out or made an effort to get to know them. While there haven’t been incidents of open conflict between the Muslim and non-Muslim employees, there is a significantly large group of non-Muslim workers who are cold and distant towards the Muslims. Some have expressed antipathy for them when they thought management staff wasn’t around.

A year ago, the Muslim employees approached the assembly facility manager with a request to change the time they took their morning break so they could engage in prayer in accordance with their religious beliefs. Management reviewed the request under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and determined it could be granted without disrupting production and without changing work schedules of other workers. However, they had to ask a number of employees to change positions on the assembly line during the break. As a result, management granted the request but noted that they couldn’t put it into effect until other workers had been trained to complete the tasks at affected work stations.

Once the change was implemented, the Muslim workers were offered the opportunity to gather in a vacant room for prayer. The company couldn’t allow for a longer break to enable the Muslim employees to pray at their mosque because the travel time would extend the break beyond a reasonable period.

The facility manager announced the change well in advance. Workers were asked to volunteer to make the station changes needed and offered the incentive of an extra day of paid time off in return for their flexibility. Nevertheless, a number of workers approached the facility manager to protest “special treatment” of the Muslim employees. Some supervisors advised the facility manager that a few employees were angry and speaking out about being “forced” to work with their Muslim peers.

As lethal attacks on innocent people by self-identified Muslims with reported ties to Islamic terrorist groups were covered in the media, tension in the workplace mounted. Several employees began making disrespectful comments about their Muslim coworkers and were outspoken in their belief that the company had no business hiring them. While no overt conflict had occurred, it was becoming clear the organizational climate at the facility was very tense.

The facility manager reported his concerns to upper management. A meeting of top management, including the vice president of human resources and the facility manager, was convened with the goal of developing an action plan to de-escalate the situation at the facility and to consider action steps for preventing future problems of a similar nature.

The details of this action plan and its relevant steps will be explored in Effective Management: De-escalation in a Hostile Workplace.