What Not to Wear: The EEOC Guides Employers on Religious Dress and Grooming Practices

by Elan Cameron

On March 6, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released additional guidance on religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), specifically on issues of religious garb and grooming in the workplace. The guidance requires employers to make exceptions to their usual workplace policies to permit applicants and employees to take part in religious dress and grooming practices, unless the requested accommodation poses an undue hardship to the business operation—for example, for workplace safety, security, or health reasons.

The new publication, “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities,” and its accompanying fact sheet cover numerous topics, including but not limited to: (1) a prohibition against job segregation due to religious attire; (2) how employers can balance employees’ interests with the employers’ needs; (3) how to avoid workplace harassment based on religious practices by an employee; and (4) how to ensure that employees who request religious accommodation do not face retaliation in the future.

The EEOC cautions employers that they cannot use customer or co-worker comments as valid reasons to refuse a religious accommodation request, or as defenses to a religious discrimination claim. The guide creates no new obligations for employers. However, it illustrates the complexity of an employer’s obligation to respect its employees’ religious customs, hold its employees accountable for the same level of respect, and at times, accommodate its employees’ religious beliefs or practices. Employers will have to carefully distinguish employees on a case-by-case basis to provide them with the protections that Title VII affords. There also may be an expectation for employers to have a basic level of understanding of common religious practices to ensure that all religious practices are protected and not infringed upon in the workplace. This new heightened level of awareness may pose a heavier burden on employers.