Exiting a Toxic Situation - An Employee’s Experience of Covert Workplace Discrimination on the Basis of Religion

In 2015, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published the findings from a call for evidence on religion or belief in the workplace and service industry. Amongst other things, it explored the direct and personal experiences of employees and found that for many, discrimination on grounds of religion or belief still impacts on their employment. This is true both in terms of the person’s recruitment and promotion and their day-to-day experiences in the workplace, with employees reporting bullying and harassment at the hand of colleagues.The Equal Rights Trust spoke with Sayeda about her experiences of religious discrimination and harassment when she was working for a public authority in the UK. 

I am a charity director from London, with a legal background. I also happen to be a Muslim. While I am semi-practising, I am very liberal in my interpretation of Islam, and have never worn a headscarf or any other type of religious garment.

In 2006, I commenced employment with a local authority in an administrative role. On the first day, I had a supervision meeting with my then Line Manager. We discussed personal presentation and she asked me how often I washed my hair. I replied that it was dry and I therefore did not wash it every day. A few weeks later, a management referral was made for me to see the Occupational Health Advisor. My line manager wrote in her referral: S has eczema and reports that her scalp and face are particularly affected. S has reported that proprietary shampoos make the condition worse and therefore she does not wash her hair very often. This is causing a significant odour and is not conducive to working within the team room or with professionals and families.

The Line Manager also ticked the box that said “this employee’s medical condition is likely to affect future attendance” and that “the problem was caused or made worse by work.” There was no reason for her to tick either of these boxes – I was not late to work or missing work nor did work cause any problem with my hair.

The bullying continued, and one of the senior chairpersons made jokey references to me not drinking alcohol when she brought back some rum cake from holiday. The Senior Coordinator held a meeting with me and the new Line Manager, to put me forward for some work with another sub-department. He said I was a “bright individual” and that he wanted to offer me some more challenging work in order to “keep me for longer”. He was, however, concerned about the complaints the other team members had made about me (he told me he suffered from a nasal condition, so had to rely on accounts from others). He would veer between sympathy for me and capitulation to what the bullies were saying. I had expected him to have more accurate insights about the situation as a senior professional, and was disappointed that he did very little to help me.

Eleven months after I joined this workplace, a new team member started to talk about religion. She told me she thought the Muslim headscarf was “sexist” and asked why only women had to wear it. She then blamed me for another software-related issue, which turned out to be her own fault.

I was also asked me to improve my timekeeping in the mornings. (I had turned to arriving late and spending a little more time on the internet as a form of escapism; I was looking up details about the kinds of jobs I really wanted, where I could make a difference to people’s lives). I then received a letter notifying me of a preliminary fact-finding investigation against me, with the charge about my timekeeping brought up, as well as others that were not mentioned in the meeting. Not long after this, I left the room one afternoon to have a private telephone conversation with a trade union representative. This was the only time she had available and we had been trying to get hold of each other for at least two days. I was only gone for twenty minutes, but when I got back, a new team member started screaming at me, asking where I had been because she had had to leave the room for an “emergency phone call”. She brought the Line Manager down to cover the desk and this exchange took place in front of her. I replied that other members of the team always took mobile phone calls – personal ones at that – but was told to take responsibility for my own actions by the Line Manager. The new team member finished the exchange by saying she “couldn’t talk to me”. I apologised and said that I wouldn’t do it again. The next morning, another team member disappeared from the room for twenty minutes without telling anyone where she was going. When the Chairperson asked us where she had gone, in a starkly different approach, the new team member replied that she had “gone walkies”. This person would take sick days on a regular basis, sometimes every week, yet she got nothing but sympathy from the team as she was a single mother. However, my lateness (which was a direct result of the bullying, took place over a specific period and had a far lesser impact on productivity) resulted in a threat of a disciplinary hearing.

After extensive discussions with trade union representatives, and a lot of stress, I decided to resign. I had been with the local authority for over a year, and the job was not what I wanted to do in the long term anyway. While I was genuinely interested in the subject matter of the work, it was fairly routine in nature, and I wanted something that would challenge me. More fundamentally, I was relieved to be exiting a toxic situation, with people who had deliberately excluded and marginalised me.

Two days before I was supposed to leave, the most malicious team member opened a window in a symbolic gesture, accused me of disrespecting the team, and said I had “run out of excuses”. She said this in spite of the fact she knew that I was leaving.

I spoke to a race equality caseworker about this episode during my lunch hour. I would pass their office on the way to mine; they were also on the Council site, although they were financially independent from the Council. I soon learnt that there was very little in the way of free (or affordable) high quality support for people who had suffered employment discrimination. He said that he could not smell anything, and the smell issue was just a way for this individual to try and upset me before I left. He described it as “petty” and thought it was probably a smokescreen for hers (and the team’s) real issue with me, whatever that may be.

Fortunately, I got a new job within a week of leaving, one that was more consonant with my long-term career goals. I had already interned for a human rights organisation, but this experience led to a greater resolve to pursue human rights as a paid career. I became an advisor to anti-discrimination organisations, and explained to them that covert workplace discrimination is the most insidious sort – it is often wrapped up in truly deceptive packages.

Statutory agencies like the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and the EHRC need to do more to tackle this kind of insidious discrimination (and need to receive greater funding themselves). I would recommend a complaints system for individuals who do not want to take legal action against their current or former employers, so that the EHRC can investigate said complaints on their behalf.

The local Race Equality Councils, by and large, do not exist anymore (and I do not see any evidence of them being replaced by local Equality and Human Rights Councils in my local area). There is a gap in quality advice provision and representation for victims of religious discrimination, somewhere between trade union reps (who can vary significantly in their competence levels) and unaffordable lawyers, which is not being met.

  • This testimony was originally featured in volume 14 of the Equal Rights Review. To download volume 14 please click here.
  • To download the findings of Religion or Belief in the Workplace and Service Delivery click here.  

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