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March 28, 2014

EEOC Issues New Guidelines Regarding Religious Garb And Grooming Practices In The Workplace

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently published new guidelines addressing the application of Title VII’s prohibition upon religious discrimination to workplace dress and grooming policies. 

In most instances, employers covered by Title VII must make exceptions to their usual rules or practices so as to permit applicants and employees to follow dress and grooming practices that conform to their sincerely held religious beliefs.  “Religion” is broadly defined and includes both traditional religions as well as new or uncommon religions.  Moreover, an applicant or employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” even if it is unaffiliated with a formal religious organization, so long as it involved a sincerely held belief.  A religious practice may be sincerely held even if it deviates from commonly-followed tenets of the religion or is newly observed or practiced by the individual.
 
Religious dress and grooming practices may include wearing religious clothing or accessories; observing a religious prohibition on wearing certain types of clothing; or adhering to hair- and beard-length requirements.  The EEOC’s new guidance reiterates if an applicant or employee requests an accommodation for a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance that conflicts with the employer's dress and grooming policy, the employer must allow the religious practice unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. 

While the term “undue hardship” in the context of religious accommodation is defined as anything that would cause more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer’s operations, the guidelines emphasize that real or perceived customer preference is not sufficient to establish an undue hardship, nor is decreased employee morale or jealousy from co-workers who are not excused from standard dress and grooming policies.  Moreover, the guidelines note that relegating an employee to a non-customer service position because of his or her religious garb is not considered a reasonable accommodation.

An employer may deny a requested accommodation as causing an undue hardship where it would impose a health, security, or safety risk.  However, the employer’s concerns must be justified and not merely speculative.   

The EEOC’s Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities guidelines may be viewed at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_religiou s_garb_grooming.cfm.  The accompanying Fact Sheet may be viewed at http://www.eeoc.gov/ee oc/publications/fs_religious_garb_grooming.cfm.

Take Away for Employers

Employers should consider reviewing their current dress and grooming policies to ensure they allow employees to request religious accommodations where necessary.  Employers should also train supervisors and managers that an employee’s religious beliefs may be “sincerely held,” and protected by law, even if such beliefs are unknown or unfamiliar, and even if the employee’s religious beliefs and/or practices may change over time.  Employers must also carefully consider each accommodation request on a case-by-case basis.