North Texas employers answer prayer room requests

Source:  http://www.dallasnews.com/

By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News

Manzur Mahmud used to hide when he prayed.

He’d duck down in his cubicle at Dallas’ Texas Instruments or scramble to a friend’s office to conduct two of his five daily Muslim prayers. Now the Bangladeshi engineer walks down the corridor and enters a small prayer room.

North Texas companies are increasingly making space for quiet rooms as Muslim employees play a larger role in the U.S. workplace and feel more secure about verbalizing their faith.

Meanwhile, businesses nationwide are seeing a rise in the number of religious discrimination charges. The changing nature of the workplace is forcing organizations to navigate the nuances of religious acceptance and office productivity.

“People have started coming forward and identifying themselves as Muslims,” said Mr. Mahmud. “And employers are realizing that if their employees are happy, they work better.”

Dallas-based American Airlines has a multipurpose room visited up to four times a day by its Muslim employees who previously prayed in the stairwells. Nortel’s Dallas campus has several scattered quiet rooms available for prayer, and Electronic Data Systems in Plano just opened one last fall.

To aid companies, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidelines last week for handling religious diversity issues.

About 2,900 religion-based charges were filed with the EEOC last year, a 13 percent increase from the previous year and double the number of cases in 1992.

The spurt of cases may actually stem from greater diversity in the workplace, said Dianna Johnston, assistant legal counsel for the EEOC. Employees are “much more open about their religion and make it part of their overall life,” she said.

Ms. Johnston said the increasing demands of the workplace heighten the likelihood of conflict since prayer times can coincide with work hours. The most prevalent religious discrimination charges include time off for religious activities and wearing religious garb like a headscarf, she said.

Islamic prayer, which involves a specified cleansing and prayer routine, also causes confusion for those unfamiliar with the practice. Islam mandates five daily prayers in the direction of Mecca. Two of these prayers, early and late afternoon, often fall during work hours.

North Texas has up to 180,000 Muslims, the second largest population in Texas next to Houston and the seventh largest Muslim community in the United States. Many work in information technology and engineering jobs in Dallas and are now assuming management positions.

“Today you even have leadership and management training workshops associated with Muslims,” said Mohamed Elibiary, president of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, based in Plano. “They are trying to climb the corporation into management whereas in the 1990s they were just happy to have a stable job.”

Muslim backlash after 9/11 had a profound impact on the community, Mr. Elibiary said, and only now are Muslims becoming comfortable enough to showcase their faith again. He attributes it to American disenchantment with the Iraq war and the war on terror.

“As Americans started losing confidence, they stopped fearing their Muslim neighbor,” he said.

Beyond a rising comfort level, more companies are taking a global approach to how they do business, said Dr. Khurshid Qureshi, president of the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers.

“They want Muslims to work for their companies,” he said. “The prayer rooms aren’t mandatory, but they are fringe benefits.”

Meditation spots still aren’t commonplace. DiversityInc, a magazine that puts out an annual report on the Top 50 Companies for Diversity, found that 16 percent last year had special religious accommodations.

Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, estimates that less than half of the region’s companies have prayer rooms. He said it’s often something that doesn’t occur to an employer until a Muslim employee mentions it.

Brian Mershon, a spokesman for Fluor Corp., said that is the case with the Irving-based construction company.

“If we had requests from Muslim employees or nursing mothers as well as any prayer room for employees, we would accommodate their requests,” Mr. Mershon said.

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