My colleagues have blogged about AB 1964, California's new law clarifying that religious dress and grooming practices are covered under the FEHA’s prohibition against religious discrimination. AB 1964 also provides that it is an insufficient accommodation to simply assign that employee to a position that is segregated from the public or other employees.
Chances are that you have already been accommodating various religious issues in the workplace. Often such requests involve scheduling issues and an employee’s desire not to work on certain religious holidays. You may also have been accommodating requests to vary from your dress and grooming policy. One such accommodation may have been to allow an employee to grow facial hair, or wear a head covering, or more modest attire, if the employee works out of sight of the public (or as they say in the hospitality industry, in the “back of the house”). What AB 1964 tells us is that such an accommodation is no longer satisfactory under the FEHA.
What does this mean to you? It means that managers must be trained not to immediately say “no” to requests for religious accommodation. Rather, managers must work with Human Resources to dig a little deeper into possible accommodations that won’t require the employee to work apart from the general public. This could prove challenging for many hospitality and retail businesses with strict dress codes. When an accommodation request is made, ask the employee what he/she needs, discuss it in detail (i.e., engage in the interactive process), and then carefully consider what accommodation might meet both the employee’s and the company’s needs. When in doubt, seek the advice of counsel before you say “no” or reach an impasse. If you are too quick to say “no,” or to push the employee behind the scenes, then you can expect additional religious accommodation-based claims.