Dress and grooming policies have been on the EEOC’s radar for several years. For example:
Other examples of religious garb or grooming that could conflict with workplace policies include a Sikh turban, a Pentecostal Christian or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts, or hair length observances such as Sikh uncut hair and beard, or Jewish peyes.
These examples ask an important question, which, last week, the EEOC attempted to answer. When must an employer grant an exception to its facially neutral dress or grooming policy as an accommodation of an employee’s religion?
Before we delve into this question, however, you need to understand the legal framework in which this question exists.
“Religion” is among the classes that Title VII protects from workplace discrimination. Religion, however, is unique under Title VII. Title VII requires an employer, once on notice, to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship. In this context, undue hardship is a low standard—the proposed accommodation need only pose more than a de minimis cost or burden.
Because of the uniqueness of this issue, and its growing importance in our multicultural workplaces, last week the EEOC published a question-and-answer guide, entitled “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.” This guide addresses how Title VII applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers should take to meet their legal responsibilities in this area.
According to the EEOC, Title VII prohibits an employer from doing any of the following:
What can an employer do, according to the EEOC?
To synthesize these Q&As into one cohesive takeaway, employers should train managers and employees that the law may require making a religious exception to an employer’s otherwise uniformly applied, and facially neutral, dress or grooming rules, practices, or preferences. This training should include the reasonable accommodation process, and the importance of avoiding stereotypes based on dress or grooming.