You Can't Wear That Here: EEOC Issues Guidance Regarding Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace

14 April 2014 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

Last month the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued updated guidance on the requirements employers must follow when an employee seeks an accommodation for religious clothing or personal grooming requirements. In its Question and Answer and Fact Sheet publications, the EEOC attempts to clarify when an employer must make such accommodations and for whom. The most recent guidance offers a good opportunity to revisit an employer’s obligation when it comes to modifying its policies and practices when religious beliefs and practices issues arise.

By law, employers must make exceptions to their normal rules or preferences to allow religious employees to observe certain customs, unless doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. This issue often arises when an employer has a dress code or grooming policy which interferes with an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. For example, an employer may require its male employees to be clean-shaven, but a Sikh employee religious practices may forbid him from shaving. Similarly, an employer’s dress code may require pants as part of a uniform, but an Orthodox Jewish woman may only wear long skirts. In each of these cases, the employer would have to allow the employee to follow his or her religious beliefs and not impose its dress code requirements, unless it would pose an undue hardship, such as a tangible health and safety or security concern. Protections for religious observations in grooming and dress also extend to job applicants. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant who appears in religious clothing solely so it will not have to make an accommodation for that person if hired.

Even though employers must make accommodations for religious employees, they need not make the same accommodations for non-religious employees. For example, a man who wishes to have a beard merely for personal, non-religious reasons is not entitled to receive an exemption from an employer’s “clean-shaven” policy, even if the employer has already made an accommodation for a Sikh employee. The law only requires an employer to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, not his or her personal preferences.

Here are a few other helpful pointers for employers who are evaluating the need for an accommodation for their employees:

  • Employers must make accommodations even when the religious beliefs an employee adheres to are new and had not previously been discussed;
  • Employers must make accommodations for employees even when the employee only observes a religious dress or grooming practice during certain times of the year;
  • These rules apply to adherents of both traditional, organized religions and newer or less well-known religions, and also apply to practices which may be considered out of the mainstream of an organized religion;
  • Employers may not rely on discriminatory customer or co-worker preferences or the need to protect the business’s “image” to deny an accommodation to an employee;
  • Employers are only required to make an accommodation for religious beliefs when the employee seeks such an accommodation; and
  • Employers may not retaliate against employees for seeking an accommodation based on their religious beliefs, and must protect employees from harassment by co-workers based on their religious beliefs.

Every business is different and employees of different religions will seek different accommodations. Therefore, employers should evaluate each request for a religious accommodation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it will impose an undue hardship on the business.

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