Employee Grooming Standards: Ensuring Your Policy Complies With Title VII

Last week, as many readers are likely aware, a high school wrestling referee in New Jersey ordered an African American student wrestler tocut his dreadlocksimmediately prior to a match, or else forfeit the match.  According to the referee, the dreadlocks and head covering the wrestler offered to wear violated the league’s rules.  A video of the controversial haircut hit the internet, quickly inciting responses from many people that the referee’s order was racist, among other things.

While the rule cited there pertained to a student athlete, employment policies related to employee appearance or grooming standards evoke similar concerns.  Employers often require employees to comply with certain grooming standards, such as by insisting on clean shaves, neat haircuts, or trimmed fingernails.  These policies must comply with Title VII and other laws prohibiting employment discrimination.  This means that employers cannot use grooming standard policies to discriminate against employees based on their race, color, religion, or any other protected status.

The EEOC’s compliance manual on race and color discrimination providesthat, in general, grooming standard policies must be:

  • neutral;
  • consistently applied to applicants/employees of all races and ethnicities; and
  • adopted for non-discriminatory reasons.

Moreover, if a grooming standard creates a disparate impact among applicants/employees, the policy must be sufficiently job-related and consistent with business necessity.

The EEOC offers additional guidance on ways that employers can avoid violating Title VII via grooming standard policies.  For instance, a grooming standard rule dictating employee hairstyles must “respect racial differences in hair textures and [be] applied evenhandedly.”  EEOC Compliance Manual No. 915.003: Section 15: Race & Color Discrimination (April 19, 2006).

Employers also need to be aware of their obligationsto refrain from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs and to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs, even when they conflict with grooming standards. This means that employers may need to make exceptions to grooming standard policies to accommodate employees whose religious beliefs require them to wear a Muslim hijab, a Sikh turban, Rastafarian dreadlocks, and the like.  The EEOCmaintainsthat as a best practice, employers should train managers and employees to understand that an applicant’s/employee’s religious belief may require an exception to a grooming standard policy and to refrain from stereotyping about work qualifications or availability of work as a result of the applicant’s/employee’s religious belief.

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