EEOC Issues Guidance for Employers on Accommodating Religious Dress and Grooming Practices

Religious diversity in the workplace is fast becoming a hot issue for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Accordingly, the agency answered questions about the application of federal employment discrimination law to religious dress and grooming practices in its recently released guidance for employers.

According to the guidance, religious dress and grooming practices may include —

  • Wearing religious clothing or articles — e.g., a Christian cross, a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, a Sikh kirpan (symbolic miniature sword);
  • Observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments — e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian or Orthodox Jewish woman's practice of wearing modest clothing, and of not wearing pants or short skirts); or
  • Adhering to shaving or hair length observances — e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks).

The guidance does not significantly alter from the EEOC’s long-term stance with respect to the level of accommodation Title VII requires for religious garb/grooming practices.

The question-and-answer format covers a variety of topics related to religion and workplace diversity, including —

  • Employer inquiries regarding the sincerity of the religious beliefs behind particular garb or grooming practices;
  • Consideration of customer preferences;
  • Whether an employer may accommodate an employee by placing them in a non-customer contact position;
  • Conflicts with employer uniform or image policies;
  • Notice required to trigger a discussion about reasonably accommodating particular religious garb/grooming practices; and
  • Undue hardship to employers in accommodating religious garb or grooming.

The guidance provides a variety of examples in an effort to emphasize that most situations — absent undue hardship to the employer's business interests — require that employers accommodate the religious dress and grooming practices of applicants and employees. Additionally, the EEOC clearly states that undue hardship does not include customer or co-worker preferences, and that employers must provide evidence of an actual — not assumed — undue hardship.

It is interesting to note the EEOC's outcome in an example with a fact pattern mirroring that of a 2013 Tenth Circuit case. In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, the Tenth Circuit held that an employer is not liable for failure to accommodate an applicant's religious garb/grooming practice unless the applicant personally and explicitly told the employer that the practice is religious and requested an accommodation.Conversely, the EEOC's result does not require explicit notice from an applicant to hold an employer liable for failure to accommodate an applicant's religious garb or grooming practice. Given this discrepancy, employers outside the Tenth Circuit should be aware that the EEOC will not require actual notice to hold an employer liable in similar situations outside the Tenth Circuit.

Religious diversity and workplace accommodations have become a significant issue that employers must actively address to avoid Title VII violations. Employers should ensure their compliance programs promote a discrimination-free workplace.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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