Management's Workplace Lawyers

EEOC Issues Guide On Religious Garb and Grooming In the Workplace

March 31, 2014

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued a question-and-answer guide on employer responsibilities under Title VII regarding religious dress and grooming in the workplace.  According to the EEOC, the guide “answers questions about how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers can take to meet their legal responsibilities in this area.”

In the guide, and the accompanying fact sheet, the EEOC provides examples of general religious dress and grooming practices:

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

Moreover, throughout the guide, the EEOC utilizes actual religious discrimination cases to illustrate more specific dress and grooming issues.

The EEOC states that, “In most instances, employers are required by federal law to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices.”  The EEOC goes on to provide an overview of the general legal principles applicable to religious discrimination. 

  • Employers may not engage in disparate treatment based on religion, by excluding someone from a job based on discriminatory religious preferences, including those of customers or clients. 
  • Employers also may not engage in workplace segregation, such as by assigning an employee to a non-customer contact position because of actual or assumed customer preference. 
  • Retaliation for engaging in protected activity, which includes requesting a religious accommodation, is prohibited. 
  • In addition, Title VII prohibits workplace harassment based on religion.

The EEOC focuses on the reasonable accommodation obligation, once the employee/applicant provides notice that a dress or grooming accommodation is required for a sincerely held religious belief or practice.  As summarized on the fact sheet, the EEOC notes that:

  • Employers may not require an employee to cover his religious garb, marking (e.g. tattoo), or article of faith, absent an undue hardship
  • Denying a dress or grooming accommodation request based on workplace safety, security or health concerns must be based on an actual undue hardship
  • If a religious exception is made, the employer does not need to permit the same exception for secular reasons
  • Co-worker and customer preferences are not undue hardships

Exceptions must be assessed on a case by case basis, and managers should be trained accordingly.