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EEOC Updates 'Religious Garb in the Workplace' Guide

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued new guidelines regarding religious attire and grooming in the workplace, reminding employers and employees what's prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Every small business should take some time to review the EEOC's updated "Fact Sheet on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities," along with the corresponding question-and-answer guide.

As you read those items, here are six areas of concern business owners should keep in mind:

  1. Disparate treatment. Title VII prohibits treating employees differently based on religious belief or practice (or for being an atheist). That includes your own discriminatory religious preferences as well as those of customers, clients, or co-workers. Remember, claiming customers prefer a person of a certain religion is not a defense to a claim of discrimination.
  2. Segregation. You cannot segregate employees based on religion (including religious garb and grooming practices). For example, you cannot assign an employee who wears a hijab to a non-customer contact position (such as a supply room) because of actual or assumed customer preference.
  3. Religious accommodation. After receiving a request from an employee for a religious accommodation -- for example, for an exception to a dress code or holiday schedule -- the employer must make the accommodation unless it would pose a genuine "undue hardship." And no, co-worker disgruntlement and customer preference don't count as undue hardships. The EEOC strongly suggests that employers review religious exception requests on a case-by-case basis, and to train managers accordingly.
  4. Retaliation. An employer may not retaliate against an employee for requesting a religious accommodation, or pursuing other lawful actions related to the implementation of Title VII.
  5. Harassment. Title VII prohibits workplace harassment -- such as unwelcome remarks or conduct -- based on religion. Never try to require or coerce an employee to abandon, change, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment.
  6. What counts as religious dress, grooming? Examples of religious dress and grooming practices may include:
    • Wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a cross, a kirpan [a symbolic miniature sword carried by Sikhs], or religious headwear such as a hijab [headscarf], a yarmulke, or a turban);
    • 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); and
    • Adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., uncut hair and beards for Sikhs, dreadlocks for Rastafarians, or peyes [sidelocks] for Jews).

To find out if your dress code goes too far, consider consulting an employment attorney in your area.

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