On March 6, 2014, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released guidance pertaining to employers’ responsibilities to accommodate religious dress and grooming in the workplace.

The guidance provides explanation and analysis concerning an employer’s responsibilities under Title VII to “make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religiously-mandated dress and grooming practices unless it would pose an undue hardship to the operation of an employer’s business.”

The EEOC guidance is contained in two separate documents:  (i) a “Fact Sheet” that provides an overview of religious accommodation requirements, and (ii) a Question and Answer document that provides the applicable requirements, advice for employers and employees, and examples of permissible and impressible practices.  The latter document includes scenarios based on recent cases brought by the Commission.

The guidance states, among other things, the following:

  • Title VII prohibits discrimination based on religious belief or practice, or lack thereof, regardless of whether it is preferred by customers, clients, or co-workers.
  • Job segregation – i.e., assigning an employee to non-customer contact or “back of the house” position – because of customer preference is unlawful.
  • Employers must provide grooming and dress accommodations for “sincerely held” religious beliefs or practices, except in cases in which doing so would be an “undue hardship” for the employer.
    • A religious belief or practice is not necessarily insincere merely because it was recently-adopted or irregularly practiced by the employee.
  • When utilizing the “undue burden” defense to deny a religious accommodation based on a safety, health, or security concern, such concern must actually pose an undue burden on the business; the employer is not permitted to assume that the accommodation poses an undue burden.

The new guidance supplements the Commission’s garb and grooming guidance set forth in the EEOC’s Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, which was released in 2008.  The new guidance does not represent a significant change in EEOC policy, but merely reinforces positions that the EEOC has taken in recent litigation.

Although the EEOC’s guidance is not binding in a court of law, employers should review their religion accommodation policies and, as a best practice, conform those policies in accordance with the Commission’s latest guidance.