Responding to an increasing number of workplace disputes, last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance for employers regarding their obligation to accommodate employees’ religious dress and grooming standards in the workplace. This guidance resulted in part from a string of lawsuits over the last decade involving Muslim and other employees’ claims that employers were refusing to allow them to wear religious garb such as headscarves in the workplace.
The guidance states the EEOC’s default position that absent other compelling circumstances, employers are expected to modify their usual dress and grooming policies to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. It makes clear that customer preference is never a defense to a claim for failure to accommodate these religious beliefs and practices. Employers cannot assign employees to “back office” positions due to concerns about the effect of their appearance on customer perceptions.
The new guidance adopts the EEOC’s position that employees and applicants do not need to tie their request for accommodation of dress or grooming standards to a specific religious practice if this is reasonably apparent to the employer. This standard has been questioned in recent federal litigation still under appeal by the agency.
The EEOC explains the limited circumstances under which accommodation of religious garb and grooming practices would present an undue hardship to the employer. The employer’s image or brand will not qualify as such a hardship. Workplace safety is the major exception to the accommodation requirement, such as a ban on loose skirts when working near machines that could result in employee entanglement and injury. However, the employer must work with the employee to devise an accommodation that meets both the religious practice and the safety issues. An example would be a restaurant allowing an employee who wears long hair as a religious requirement to use a hairnet.
Virtually all of the examples provided under the guidance require the employer to allow the employee to maintain religious dress and grooming standards. The EEOC makes clear that only unusual situations that typically involve a direct threat to safety or health standards will meet the undue hardship requirement. Employers should train managers with regard to their obligations under the law and the need not to reject employee religious accommodation requests out of fear of the impact of the employee’s appearance on the company’s image.