Even if employees’ religion-based dress or grooming may not fit in with companies’ or customers’ expectations, employers cannot automatically enforce their established workplace rules and force those employees to conform. The EEOC has issued a factsheet and accompanying Q&A sheet providing guidance on religious dress and grooming, and potential accommodation of those practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_religious_garb_grooming.cfm
The EEOC’s guidance reminds employers that “religion” is broadly defined and includes not only traditional religious beliefs but those that are new, uncommon and not a part of a formal church or sect. The number of individuals who hold the belief in question is not significant. The key to determining whether a religious practice may be protected is whether it consists of moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong that are “sincerely held” with the “strength of traditional religious views.” The EEOC points out that a belief may be “religious” even if it is not followed by others in the same religious sect, denomination or congregation.
While an applicant or employee need not use the magic phrase “accommodation” when requesting an accommodation, it must be shown that the employer has some knowledge that the particular dress or grooming practice is associated with the employee’s religious beliefs.
It should be noted that the standard for determining whether an accommodation of a particular grooming or dress practice constitutes an “undue hardship” on the employer is whether it would involve more than minimal cost or burden on the operation of the employer’s business. That is a much lower standard for an employer to meet than is applied to accommodations under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, that does not mean, for example, that an employer can automatically apply a uniform grooming or clothing standard, even though it previously had been applied to all employees, as a defense to an accommodation request. Under the Guidelines, deviating from a company’s preferred image and customer preference practices is not considered to be an “undue hardship”. Nor can an employer assign an employee requesting religious accommodation to a non-contact position because their grooming or dress does not conform with company standards. While an employer may refuse to accommodate an employee because of concerns relating to safety, security or health, those concerns must be shown to be justified by the facts and not speculative.
The recently issued guidelines are simply a confirmation of the long-standing EEOC position on religious based dress and grooming standards in the workplace. While the standard for what constitutes an “undue hardship” certainly is lower for religious accommodation than for accommodation based on a disability, the EEOC has given clear notice that it believes that employees have significant rights in this area and that if an employee in the workplace is denied an accommodation, the employer must be prepared to demonstrate its reason for doing so is proper under the standards set forth in the guidelines.