Woman asked questions about national origin, terminated from job

While at work one day, Nihal walked into the restroom when a customer whom she perceived to be a man walked into the women’s restroom behind her.

Under the impression that this person was male, Nihal was fearful and stated, “This is the woman’s bathroom,” to which the customer replied, “Excuse me?” Nihal left the bathroom and waited for the customer to finish, before entering the restroom.

Rather than approaching Nihal directly, the customer made a complaint to Nihal’s supervisor about their interaction. The supervisor then called Nihal into his office to explain that she had offended the customer because the customer, identified as a woman. Also during the meeting, Nihal’s supervisor mentioned that other employees had previously made the same mistake, and those employees had only been given a warning and were able to keep their jobs.  Nihal apologized for the incident without hesitation, and her supervisor told her to return to work.

Just a few days later, a corporate representative came to Nihal’s store to question her about the incident. With great sincerity, Nihal explained that she had not understood that the customer was female and that she had been genuinely fearful when a man followed her into the restroom. Entirely unrelated to the incident at hand, the company representative asked Nihal a series of invasive and presumptuous questions about her national origin - Nihal was born in Somalia - and specifically about the social behaviors of women in Somalia.  It was at this point during their communication that Nihal reported having felt that an investigation of the incident had ceased and an attack on her own personhood had begun. Nihal felt humiliated and belittled by the questions, but felt she had no choice but to respond if she wanted to keep her job.

After being asked by a representative from the human resources department if Nihal thought that her comment to the customer was “wrong,” she once again explained her own mistake and apologized for what had occurred. Nihal expressed her feeling that this case had been blown out of proportion, given that the exact same incident had occurred previously with other employees, and that little action had been taken against those employees. She asked the corporate representative who began the investigation if he wanted to fire her, and he said yes. She then asked why he refused to accept a written apology and why he didn’t just give her a written warning, to which he responded with a condescending chuckle. The meeting concluded after he asked Nihal for her photo ID and her work badge, and claimed that he would send a termination letter to her home.  This letter was never delivered to Nihal. 

Nihal expressed to CAIR-WA that she felt her employer delivered an unnecessarily harsh response to what should have been a very minor situation, and that the representative had discriminated against her due to her status as a Somali Muslim woman. Not only had other employees made similar mistakes in the past with no penalty beyond a written warning, but also Nihal had worked at this same store for a five year period with zero write-up history and an excellent employment record. Furthermore, not once during training for her position had the employee been given a copy of the employee code of conduct, nor had she ever been notified of any policy regarding customer bathroom use or employee conduct with customers.

In a letter written by CAIR-WA and sent to the Vice President of Human Resources at the company, CAIR-WA asked for an investigation into the alleged incident and for the company’s cooperation with the Seattle Office for Civil Rights in the completion of their own investigation. CAIR-WA also requested a written apology to Nihal and for her immediate reinstatement at a different store.

In addition to establishing a thorough training for all employees to set a universal standard for employee conduct, CAIR-WA asked that the company provide language translation services for employees upon request and provide a copy of their employee handbook to all employees in their respective languages. Lastly, the letter asked the company to implement CAIR-WA’s Workplace Sensitivity and Diversity Training for all managerial level employees.

Thus far, CAIR-WA has received a response from the company’s legal counsel acknowledging our letter and Nihal’s complaints. They have begun an investigation and will provide a written response shortly.

If you or someone you know faces discrimination in the workplace, have them contact CAIR-WA for help via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone at 206.367.4081.   Also see our Know Your Rights page at: www.cairwa.org/know-your-rights