Fighting biased employment barriers to embrace diversity

The following is guest post by Lisa Benson, President and Chief Executive Officer at Mary Kraft Staffing.

Mary Kraft Staffing was founded in 1989 by a Maryland native, Mary Kraft, and has since partnered with industry-leading healthcare, financial, commercial, and service industry clients to increase productivity and drive cost savings through an array of flexible, cost-effective staffing and outsourced HR options.


Religion and/or interfaith work have an enormous impact on my work, not on an every-day basis but certainly on a consistent basis. As a large, regional, women-owned staffing firm with a daily census averaging 261 employees assigned to client locations, and another 22 employees in our corporate office, Mary Kraft is exposed to a variety of different workplace cultures, dress codes, guidelines, beliefs and preferences.

For 16 years, I’ve been engaged in the staffing industry at Mary Kraft. Rising through the ranks to my current position as President and CEO, I’ve been challenged, many times, by the questions and beliefs shared with me by valued clients and employees alike. We’ve had challenges on religiously mandated diets, sunset curfews, hair styles, and facial hair representations, but the single most recurring challenge is on Muslim women wearing a hijab, jilbab, or abaya.

The most memorable challenge for me was also the first one I encountered in this industry. Nearly 16 years ago, the Practice Manager for a top client rejected a very highly-qualified, female, Muslim, candidate for a long-term, temporary, professional position at an internationally renowned medical institution. I recruited and interviewed the Muslim candidate and submitted her resume for consideration. The same Practice Manager reviewed the resume and was very impressed. She moved to the next phase of the interview process and phone screened the candidate. Delighted with the outcome of the phone screen, this manager, invited the candidate to interview face-to-face. When the candidate arrived wearing a hijab and jilbab, the client performed a cursory interview and sent the candidate on her way prior to calling us to say that we should have known better than to send a candidate wearing this attire. She stated that, “The doctors would never allow her to sit at the front desk and greet patients dressed that way!”

As you may suspect, the candidate was dressed the same way when she interviewed here, at Mary Kraft, prior to her phone screen with our client. I was impressed with her resume, her professional deportment and her handy management of the interview questions and technique – complete with outstanding inquiries about the job and the institution, underscoring her vast experience. I never thought to question her attire or her appearance. In fact, I had and have since assigned other employees dressed in much the same way to front desk positions in that same institution with absolutely no challenge and no ensuing discussion. We have also had many relationships over the years with clients, at the same institution, who were dressed in the same fashion.

While this experience has had no bearing on our commitment to present our most qualified candidate consistently, it did lead me to spend a fair amount of time training our team on appropriate responses to challenges on religious or cultural attire or really any religiously driven exceptions to general workplace rules and guidelines. Our response to the push back must ALWAYS be, “Mary Kraft selects, for presentation to our clients, the MOST qualified candidates for each position.” For our staff members that’s the end of the conversation.

Should we take it further on our end of the conversation, or simply remain silent after reiterating our commitment to diversity and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)? This is the age-old question for me. In some instances, I am close enough to a client to tell them point blank, “I’m sorry you are concerned about the appearance of this individual in your office setting, but if you pass up the chance to bring this candidate on board you will miss out on the opportunity to place an excellent worker within your organization.” In other cases, I am not.

A counter-challenge to a client-that goes beyond the recitation of our commitment to diversity and the EEOC may have the potential to harm a relationship between the Client organization and our company. As the non-owner President and CEO, I am very aware of this. It is a sad conundrum with no immediate solution but to stay in the conversation with everyone about the fact that outward symbols have nothing to do with workplace capabilities or behaviors.

After years of encountering these challenges, I am more than a little certain that they come from individuals on the front line and not from the true decision makers at these institutions. It is troubling to experience front line management who are comfortable denying assignments to qualified individuals based on outward religious symbols. A thousand institutions in Baltimore can commit to affirmative action plans and diversity in the workplace, but one ignorant frontline manager can place the institution in jeopardy.

How do we get beyond the biases, assumptions, and bigotry of individual frontline managers and encourage them to elevate the discussion rather than jumping to conclusions about who should be sitting in patient facing positions and what they should be wearing?

A recent article in Vogue entitled Modesty Blazes! by Leslie Camhi states, in part, “The success of the hijab-wearing Somali-American model Halima Aden bears witness to a new inclusiveness in women’s style.” To me, Halima’s tale in itself is a commentary on the slow pace of change and acceptance in the U.S. She “made headlines last winter as the first hijab-wearing high-fashion model on runways in New York and Milan.”

Considering the size of the Muslim community in the U.S. and in each major city in the U.S., is it really possible that it has taken this long for the fashion industry to be inclusive of a Muslim woman or her attire? Will Halima’s presence in American high-fashion be a change agent in the hearts and minds of those front line managers who may believe they are somehow protecting their organizations by leaning away from inclusion? We can only hope.

The ICJS Entrepreneurs Lunchtime Series (ELS) brings together local entrepreneurial leaders to discuss the role that religion and ethics can play in building healthy communities. In this initiative, the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about religion and ethics in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome and lift up this diversity of perspectives.
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