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Discriminating Dress
External Symbols of Faith Can Unfairly Add to Interview Stress

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005

Job interviews are full of stress. We worry about what to wear, whether to carry a briefcase, how to get there, and whether our sweaty palms will be that noticeable when we shake hands with our interviewer.

And some worry their traditional day-to-day appearance will cost them a job offer.

I recently received an e-mail from a woman in the D.C. area who has been looking to change jobs within the nonprofit, international-development sector. The issue? She is a Muslim woman who chooses to wear a head scarf. "While I may wear this external symbol of faith, I consider my faith intensely private and will never discuss it unless someone asks me something," she wrote. "When I walk into interviews, I find that literally interviewers' jaws drop. They are excited on the phone, but in person they lose the energy."

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that she was born and raised in this country (not that this should matter) and is well educated, with a master's degree in public policy. She has had a solid six years of work in international development.

After feeling as if she were shocking her interviewers, she said she considered sending a small, post-interview e-mail, explaining that she is Muslim woman, that she hopes no one was taken aback by her manner of dress and that her faith has nothing to do with how well she works or what level of commitment she brings to a job.

"It is sad that I even have to go this route, but a number of my friends have been told that the headscarf has affected the potential employers' image of them," she said.

Her feelings may be legitimate, unfortunately. General religious discrimination charges made up 1.9 percent of all charges filed in 1992, while they accounted for 3.1 percent in 2004, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The number of charges filed by Muslims alleging discrimination doubled from the four years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the four years after, according to David Grinberg, a spokesman with the EEOC.

"That's one of the sad realities that many women of faith who wear traditional head covers face. This is because it's more of an easy symbol to identify a person's faith and make them subject to this negative backlash for a typical stereotype that goes along with that," said Imad Hamad, a regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Companies have a duty, and are legally bound, not to discriminate against anyone based on religion. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion, national origin, race, color or sex. But still, employers discriminate against individuals for things such as wearing a hijab, both subtly and not so subtly. Some may not even realize they are doing it, said Zachary A. Hummel, a partner with Bryan Cave LLP who counsels companies on such issues.

"I have clients look back at their applicant pool and hiring and make sure that as a proportion of the applicants, their workforce is at least somewhat representative of those applicants," he said. "If I have 100 Muslims that identify themselves as such, and . . . none of them have been hired and they were a significant proportion of the applicants, you have to go back and say how did this happen."

Hummel has had wide experience with discrimination. He is an attorney who works to prevent liability against employers, but he also was, until recently, chairman of the board of the International Institute of St. Louis, which helps refugees resettle in the United States.

"Obviously in a post-9/11 world, there have been a whole series of issues, a whole bunch of consequences for people of Middle Eastern descent," Hummel said. "There can be some prejudices out there, and certainly many Muslims feel more conspicuous," particularly if they choose to wear a head scarf, he said.

We all probably know by now the protections workers have under the law. But there's more: Diversity, as I've written many times before, is key to a good workforce.

"Promoting and making sure your workforce is a reflection of the community you're in is important," Hummel said.

On a happy note, the interviewee who wrote to me said she had just had a great interview and was later offered the job she wanted. She accepted.

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her with your column ideas atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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