Most employers know that they cannot discriminate against employees and applicants based on their religion. But employers also have a duty to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s or applicant’s “sincerely held” religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
Religious accommodation claims are increasingly targeting company dress code and appearance policies.While employers have the right to enforce policies relating to an employee’s physical appearance and dress while at work, recent case law suggests that employers need to be careful in their application of such policies.
Dressing the Part
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Although dress codes are often in place for legitimate business reasons, an employer may have to relax its dress code if it conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs.
For instance, a fast food franchise in Texas terminated a cashier because she wore a skirt to work instead of the restaurant’s uniform pants. The applicant allegedly informed the restaurant of her need for accommodation because her religion, Christian Pentecostal, forbids her from wearing slacks. The restaurant ultimately paid $25,000 to settle the lawsuit.
In another case, a federal court found a retailer in California liable for religious discrimination when it fired a Muslim employee for refusing to remove her hijab (headscarf) at work.
Beards and Tattoos
Employers also must tread lightly in trying to control personal appearance in the workplace.
In November 2013, a car dealership agreed to pay $50,000 to settle a Sikh applicant’s claim that he was denied a job based on his refusal to comply with the dealership’s “no-beard” policy. Similarly, a trucking company settled a case for $46,000 in which a newly hired driver’s Rastafarian religious beliefs prohibited him from cutting his hair or shaving his beard to comply with the grooming policy.
Such claims also may extend to tattoos or piercings.For example, a restaurant employee refused to cover tattoos while at work on the grounds that covering the tattoos, which were themselves religious, would violate his religious beliefs. The EEOC brought suit on behalf of the employee and the restaurant ultimately settled the matter for a whopping $150,000.
Refuge for Employers
Notably, personal preferences are not protected under the law. Thus, while a Rastafarian may be exempt from a grooming policy, his bearded coworker is not protected from discipline under the policy simply because he prefers the look.
Moreover, when dress and appearance policies relate to safety, such as prohibiting long sleeves around machinery, courts have uniformly upheld the rights of employers to demand compliance.
Finally, offensive or vulgar expressions need not be tolerated and may even become a liability for employers. For instance, while an employee may claim that his KKK tattoo represents a religious belief, that same tattoo could be used as evidence to support a coworker’s racial-harassment claim against the company.
No “One Size Fits All” Policies
As these cases demonstrate, a “one size fits all” policy may be problematic when it conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs. Each request for a religious accommodation will turn on the facts of the specific case, and managers must be trained to address any issues that may arise.
John W. Stapleton
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