Say Yes to the Dress and Grooming Requests? EEOC Issues New Guidance Regarding Religious Accommodati

Say Yes to the Dress and Grooming Requests? EEOC Issues New Guidance Regarding Religious Accommodations

As first appeared in Inside Indiana Business: Big Wigs & New Gigs.  

Subscription CenterIn light of a steady rise in religious discrimination charges, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued guidelines regarding the application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to religious dress and grooming practices.  Title VII prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on religion and several other protected characteristics.  The EEOC's new guidance serves as a reminder that under certain circumstances, Title VII requires employers to accommodate an applicant's and an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs, including reasonable requests for exceptions to appearance polices.  Below are some highlights from the EEOC's recently issued guidance.

1.      Be cautious in assuming that a practice is not "religious." Whether a practice or belief is "religious" is typically not disputed due to the term's broad definition, which includes practices based on traditional, organized religions as well as new or uncommon religions practiced by a limited number of people.  Employers should not assume that an employee's beliefs are not "sincerely held" simply because such beliefs are inconsistent with the commonly known practices of the employee's religion.  However, if an employer questions the religious nature of a practice or whether the belief at issue is sincerely held, the employer may request verification necessary to evaluate the legitimacy of the request.
 
2.      Accommodations are required in the absence of undue hardship. Employers are not required to grant employee's exceptions to appearance policies if providing the religious accommodation would cause an undue hardship.  The EEOC defines undue hardship as anything that would cause more than a de minimis cost or burden on the operations of the employer's business – a lower burden than what is necessary to establish an undue hardship defense in cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  A showing of undue hardship is required even if an employer's refusal to accommodate the employee is based on workplace safety, security or health concerns.  Additionally, customer preference fails to constitute undue hardship and an employer may not reassign an employee to a non-customer contact position based on the employee's religious attire.
 
3.      Employers are not required to deviate from appearance policies for secular reasons. When an employer accommodates a religious dress or grooming request, it may still retain its standard appearance polices with respect to its other employees – employers are not required to grant similar exceptions for employees based on secular reasons.  Additionally, employers may not refuse to accommodate religious dress or grooming requests due to employee jealously, disgruntlement or low morale caused by the religious accommodations.
 
4.      Knowledge initiates employer obligations. No "magic words" are required to trigger an employer's obligation to accommodate an employee's religious attire or grooming practice.  An employer need only have knowledge that the employee needs an accommodation to practice or observe a sincerely held religious belief, even if the employee makes no explicit request for the accommodation.  If the employer has any indication that a particular dress or grooming practice is based on a religious observance, the employer must assess whether an accommodation is required.
 
5.      Employees may have to cover up their religious attire.  An employer may accommodate an employee's request for a religious accommodation even if the employer asks the employee to cover the religious attire or item.  However, the employer's request is only permissible if covering the attire would not violate the employee's religious beliefs.

Due to the steady rise of religious discrimination cases and the EEOC's recent guidance, employers should review their current dress and grooming policies to ensure that such policies do not run afoul of Title VII's protections. Additionally, employers should ensure that managers and supervisors are adequately trained to understand when religious accommodations are required and recognize the importance of evaluating such requests on a case-by-case basis. 

For more information, contact Courtney King or any other member of Ice Miller's Labor and Employment Group.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader's specific circumstances.