A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court substantially restricts the ability of employers to enforce workplace personal appearance or grooming policies where the policy conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs.

In Brown v. F.L. Roberts & Co., Inc., 425 Mass. 674 (2008), the employer maintained a policy requiring all employees who had customer contact to be clean-shaven and to keep their hair “clean, combed and neatly trimmed.” Plaintiff Brown, a Rastafarian, notified his manager that his religion prohibited him from shaving or cutting his hair. Relying on federal law, the company refused to make any exceptions to the grooming policy and the plaintiff was reassigned to a position that did not involve customer contact.

Federal and state law both require an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s bona fide religious beliefs, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would be an undue hardship. An undue hardship typically is viewed as one that would force the employer to incur more than a minimal cost. One of the leading federal cases from the First Circuit (which includes Massachusetts) also concluded that an undue hardship could include potential harm to a company’s “public image.” Under federal law, an employer has discretion in determining whether an accommodation would negatively affect its public image, and thereby has considerable discretion in denying requests for exceptions to these policies.

According to the Brown decision, however, under Massachusetts state law, an employer must have specific proof that an exception to a personal appearance policy would cause real, tangible harm to the company’s business or image. The threshold for establishing this harm is high. In Brown, the court refused to find that the employer has met this burden even though the employer provided evidence that approximately 12 customers commented negatively on employees’ facial hair, and that the company’s profitability actually increased after institution of the personal appearance policy.