The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued the latest in its question-and-answer series, Religious Garb and Grooming Requirements in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities. I am a big fan of the EEOC’s Q&As on various discrimination topics, particularly the detailed examples it uses to explain what the law requires and how employees and employers can work together to come up with sensible solutions. That said, although this recent installment is similarly helpful and informative, it doesn’t break new policy ground.
As the EEOC and courts have long held, employers may be required to accommodate an employee’s religious clothing, jewelry, decorative items, and grooming requirements. The EEOC’s Q&A gives examples and details about how this requirement works, with particular focus on head coverings (such as yarmulkes, turbans, and hijab), long hair, and beards. A few things the agency emphasized:
- Whether the underlying belief requiring accommodation is “religious” and “sincerely held” will very rarely be in question. As the EEOC points out, its definition of “religious” is so broad as to rule out most employer challenges. And, beliefs may be sincerely held even if they change over time or deviate from the tenets of the religion the employee claims to practice.
- Customer preference and related justifications — such as the company’s “image” or “brand” — just do not cut it as employer defenses. There are a number of examples in the Q&A making this point in various ways. Customers don’t like turbans? Image requires employees to be clean-shaven? Brand requires employees to wear the latest fashions, without head scarves? These are all non-starters as defenses to a failure to accommodate claim.
- Like accommodations for disabilities, religious accommodations must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Even if there is a legitimate safety justification for a particular requirement, the employer should look at whether the employer’s concerns can be met for that employee in other ways. The EEOC gives an example of a security guard who wears a head scarf. Even if the employer’s policy prohibits any clothing that covers the face or head, the employer might have to allow an exception if it can meet its security needs in other ways for this employee (by, for example, requiring the employee to temporarily remove the covering for identification purposes).