The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued informal guidance related to religious garb and grooming in the workplace. In it, the EEOC reiterates the need for employers to accommodate employees' sincerely held religious beliefs and customs. The takeaway for employers is that a clear and effective antidiscrimination policy, coupled with managers who understand the need to explore and, in most cases, provide religious accommodations, are key to preventing religious discrimination in the workplace.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances conflict with a work requirement, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. The Act defines "religion" broadly and protects virtually all types of traditional and nontraditional practices, provided that the employee's beliefs are sincerely held. As such, an employee's belief or practice can qualify as "religious" under Title VII even if the employee is not affiliated with a formal religious organization or others in the employee's sect do not adhere to the same belief or practice.
To prevent religious discrimination in the workplace, it is critical for employers to understand that Title VII accords broad protections to employees relative to their religious beliefs, practices and customs, often making it necessary for the employer to provide a wide range of accommodations to employees of different faiths. In a perfect world, every employee requiring an accommodation would make a formal request immediately after learning about the employer's conflicting dress or grooming policies or upon being given a schedule that conflicts with his or her holiday or Sabbath observances. However, it is important for managers to understand that an employee need not use any "magic words" to make a request. Indeed, the EEOC's guidance states that, in some instances, it may be obvious that the employee's practice is religious and that it conflicts with a workplace policy.
Employers may not avoid their responsibilities under Title VII by refusing to hire applicants who may require a scheduling or other accommodation, or by segregating religious employees in certain positions. The EEOC's guidance makes clear that customer preferences concerning religious beliefs and practices do not provide the employer with a lawful basis for employment decisions. As such, assigning an employee to a non-customer-facing position because of expressed or anticipated customer preferences or complaints will violate Title VII. This is one instance where the customer is not always "right."
Once an employer becomes aware of the need for an accommodation, whether by a formal request or observation, it should assess each situation on a case-by-case basis and make exceptions to the employer's usual rules or preferences whenever possible. If an employee's request would cause more than de minimis cost or burden on the operation of the employer's business or infringe upon the rights of other employees, the employer should explore alternative accommodation options before denying the request. Oftentimes, according to the EEOC, making an exception to the dress/grooming code by, for example, allowing a Sikh man to wear a beard or a Muslim woman to wear a hijab, will not cause an undue hardship on the employer.
A proactive approach is recommended to minimize the risk of a religious discrimination claim. Consider including a statement in your employee handbook affirming your organization's commitment to accommodating employee religious beliefs, practices and customs. Training is another essential component. Managers should be taught how to recognize when an accommodation may be necessary and to involve the human resources or legal department when employees request religious accommodations. Managers should understand the extent of protection afforded by the law and be reminded that each and every situation is unique, meaning that prejudgments and assumptions (and especially knee-jerk denials) should be avoided. Inflexible adherence to dress and grooming policies, or to work schedules that do not accommodate religious observances, is a recipe for trouble, and employers should educate managers about the need to remain flexible in the face of a need or request for religious accommodation.
The EEOC's guidance on religious garb and grooming in the workplace was issued in two parts and is available here: http://www1.eeoc.gov//eeoc/publications/fs_religious_garb_grooming.cfm?renderforprint=1; http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_religious_garb_grooming.cfm.