EEOC Religious Dress & Grooming Policies

In the Press · April 15, 2014

The Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently published guidelines addressing
workplace rights and responsibilities with respect to religious dress and
grooming under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et
seq. The EEOC’s guidance is contained in two separate documents. The first is a
question-and-answer guide, "Religious
Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities
,"
which provides the applicable requirements, advice for employers and employees,
and examples of permissible and impressible practices. The second is a fact
sheet
outlining the basic information about how Title VII applies to
religious dress and grooming policies. The new guidelines supplement the EEOC’s
existing garb and grooming guidance set forth in the EEOC’s
Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination
, which was released in
2008.    

The guidelines explain that
employers are obligated by Title VII to make exceptions to their usual rules or
preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religiously-mandated
dress and grooming practices. Examples of religious dress and grooming
practices include wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., Muslim hijab
(headscarf), a Sikh turban or a Christian cross); observing a religious
prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal
Christian or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short
skirts), or adhering to hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and
beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (side locks)).

The guidelines address the
following topics (among others):

  • Prohibitions on job segregation,
    such as assigning an employee to a non-customer service position because
    of his or her religious garb;
  • Accommodating religious grooming
    or garb practices while ensuring employer workplace needs;
  • Avoiding workplace harassment
    based on religion, which may occur when an employee is required or coerced
    to forgo religious dress or grooming practices as a condition of
    employment; and
  • Ensuring there is no retaliation
    against employees who request religious accommodation.

Notwithstanding the EEOC’s
expansive interpretation of Title VII’s religious accommodation mandate, the
guidelines acknowledge that an employer may refuse a requested accommodation
where it would cause an "undue hardship," which is defined by the
EEOC as anything that would cause more than a de minimis cost or burden on the
employer’s operations. Nevertheless, an employer is not permitted
to simply assume that an accommodation poses an undue burden. The guidelines
make clear, however, that customer preference (real or perceived) is not
sufficient to establish an undue burden, nor is decreased employee morale or
jealousy from co-workers who are not excused from standard dress and grooming
policies. An employee may also deny a request for an accommodation where granting
it would impose a health, security or safety hazard.

Given the increase in religious
discrimination claims over the last decade, and in light of the EEOC’s new
guidelines, employers should review their current dress and grooming policies
to ensure that they set forth the processes by which employees may request
religious accommodations where necessary, as well as provide training to
managers about Title VII’s religious accommodation requirements. 

If you have any questions about the information
presented here, or would like to learn more about how Prince Lobel can address
any of your employment law concerns, please
contact Joseph
L. Edwards
at 617 456 8131, jedwards@princelobel.com, or Julie A. Heinzelman at 617 456 8088, jheinzelman@princelobel.com, the authors of this alert, or Daniel
S. Tarlow
, chair of the firm’s Employment
Law Practice Group
at 617 456 8013, dtarlow@princelobel.com.