The number of claims of religious discrimination has grown significantly over the past several years. Within these claims are those relating to an applicant’s or employee’s dress or grooming.
Employers covered by Title VII must make exceptions to their rules or preferences so applicants and employees can follow religiously-mandated dress and grooming practices, unless the exception would pose an undue hardship on the business.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued new guidelines to govern employers’ compliance. It offered several examples from actual litigated cases.
For example, customer preference is not a defense against a discrimination claim. If a business takes an action based on the preferences of others, including customers, clients or co-workers, it is unlawfully discriminating based on religion.
In one case, a Muslim applicant for an airport ticket-counter position wore a headscarf because of her religious beliefs. The manager feared that customers might think that an airport employee, who was identifiably Muslim, was sympathetic to terrorist hijackers. As a result, the supervisor offered her a position in the airline’s call center, where she would interact with customers by phone. This religious segregation violated the law.
In the guidelines, the EEOC emphasizes that when an employer makes an exception, it may still enforce its dress and grooming rules for other workers. Co-workers’ unhappiness or jealousy about the religious accommodation is not a reason to deny the accommodation.
The EEOC cites this example. A front-desk attendant worked at a sports club where the manager required employees to wear tennis shorts. The employee asked to wear a long skirt because her religion demanded that women dress modestly. The club agreed, but if other employees wanted similar exceptions for nonreligious reasons, it could deny their requests.
For many, dress or grooming is a required expression of their religious beliefs. Employers must be careful in addressing requested exceptions to their dress or grooming codes. An erroneous response can lead to a claim of religious discrimination.