New EEOC Guidelines on Accommodation of Religious Dress and Grooming Practices: A Higher Standard?


"Celtic Cross (#0383)" by regan76

“Celtic Cross (#0383)” by regan76

On March 6, 2014, the EEOC issued new guidelines on what employers must do to accommodate their employees’ religious dress and grooming practices. See EEOC publication titled Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.  The agency takes the position that employers must accommodate these religious practices, even when they violate company policies, unless doing so presents an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business.

Specifically, Q&A 6 of the guidelines states:

“Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.  Therefore, when an employer’s dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.”

"Turban Day 2012-15" by Anuraj Singh

“Turban Day 2012-02” by Anuraj Singh

According to the EEOC, employers must accommodate all aspects of religious observance, including not only the well-established religious practices of traditional religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.), but also “new, uncommon” practices “not part of a formal church or sect,” and any “sincerely held” beliefs, even where they are not part of a formal church practice and even if the belief seems “illogical or unreasonable to others.” See Q&As 2 and 4.

One tricky issue for employers is the standard of accommodation to which the EEOC will hold employers. Traditionally, the standard for religious accommodation has been that employers need not agree to any accommodation that causes more than a de minimis cost or burden to the employer’s operations. Q&A 6 of the EEOC’s new guidelines pays lip service to retaining this de minimis standard:

“For purposes of religious accommodation, undue hardship is defined by courts as a “more than de minimis” cost or burden on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, if a religious accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship. This is a lower standard than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) undue hardship defense to disability accommodation.”

EEOC sealNevertheless, the new EEOC guidelines make it clear that the following cannot be the basis for the employer’s claim of undue hardship:

  • customer preferences (Q&As 5 and 6)
  • co-worker disgruntlement (Q&As 5 and 6)
  • an employer’s desire to use a particular image or marketing strategy (Q&A 10)

If these core business considerations cannot be rationales for objecting to a religious accommodation, then an employer’s operations can in fact be significantly altered by compliance with an employee’s request for an exemption from a dress or grooming policy, contrary to the expressed de minimis standard.

It appears that the only  acceptable “undue hardship” the EEOC will recognize is one which causes and actual impact on safely, security or health. See Q&A 12. And the only example of permissible refusal to accommodate a dress or grooming requirement in Q&A 12 is requiring an employee with a beard to wear two face masks instead of one for hygiene reasons (Example 15). Even prohibiting an employee from wearing a dull knife that is a religious symbol is an illegal denial of religious accommodation (Example 19).

In many instances an employer can acquiesce to an employee’s religiously motivated requests for different dress and grooming standards with little or no hardship, and accommodating these requests is appropriate. Nevertheless, many of the examples given in the EEOC guidelines do not feel like de minimis intrusions into employers’ businesses to me. They feel like they impose a significant risk that the agency will second-guess an employers’ decisions.

And how far should the EEOC’s higher standard of accommodation be allowed to extend? What about religiously motivated speech? The new guidelines do not (yet) speak to anything more than religious dress and grooming accommodations. But there is no rationale that I can see why customer or co-worker objections to dress and grooming accommodations should be prohibited, while objections to words should be allowed.

I was involved in a situation where an employee in a retail operation insisted in answering the phone “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, this is [XYZ Department Store].” When questioned about this practice, she said that her beliefs required her to always speak in the name of Jesus Christ and to so preface her remarks.

We had many complaints from both Christian and non-Christian customers. After much discussion with the employee and her minister, the retailer ultimately terminated her employment. A court found the termination proper and granted the store summary judgment. But I wonder whether we might have been liable for employment discrimination under these new EEOC new religious accommodation guidelines, no matter how many customers we lost as a result of her statements.

What types of religious accommodation requests have you encountered in the workplace?

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Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

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