The EEOC recently published new technical assistance explaining its view of how federal employment discrimination law, specifically Title VII, applies to religious dress and grooming standards. Employers may encounter many types of religious dress and grooming practices according to the EEOC, including: (a) wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Muslim hijab, a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross); (b) observing a prohibition on wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts); or (c) adhering to rules regarding hair length or shaving (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes).
The EEOC compiled a series of questions and answers, including twenty-one example employment scenarios, to provide detailed guidance on how employers can meet their legal obligations under Title VII. The bottom line, however, is that most of the time employers will be required by federal law to make exceptions to their usual workplace rules and preferences to accommodate the religious practices of applicants and employees. Customer or client preference is not a defense; nor is reliance on projecting a certain company image, which essentially is the same thing as customer preference. Similarly, assigning an employee a “back room” position to avoid customer contact, because the employee observes certain religious dress or grooming practices, is also considered discrimination.
Employers are required to make exceptions to dress codes and grooming policies to accommodate an employee’s religion-based dress or hair request unless doing so would cause “undue hardship” for the employer. In this context, courts have interpreted undue hardship to mean a “more than de minimis” cost or burden to the employer’s business operation. Although this technically is a lower standard than what constitutes “undue hardship” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it still can be a tricky concept to implement when dealing with dress codes and grooming. Employers should check with legal counsel before denying a request for religious accommodation.
The EEOC’s Fact Sheet is located at: http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs_religious_garb_grooming.cfm