Q. Our company requires male employees to keep their hair short. However, a recent applicant has stated that his religion doesn’t allow him to cut his hair. Will requiring him to cut his hair to get the job violate federal law?
A. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their religion. Employers must accommodate any bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employer policy or practice unless it creates an “undue hardship.”
In recent years, religion seems to be the protected class of choice for plaintiffs seeking to have dress codes deemed unlawful. This is not an entirely negative development for employers, however, because their obligations to accommodate religion are minimal.
Perhaps due to the influx in this type of claim, the EEOC recently issued the following guidance regarding the relationship between dress codes and religious beliefs:
When an employer has a dress or grooming policy that conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, the employee may ask for an exception to the policy as a reasonable accommodation. Religious grooming practices may relate, for example, to shaving or hair length. Religious dress may include clothes, head or face coverings, jewelry, or other items. Absent undue hardship, religious discrimination may be found where an employer fails to accommodate the employee’s religious dress or grooming practices.
Some courts have concluded that it would pose an undue hardship if an employer had to accommodate a religious dress or grooming practice that conflicted with the public image the employer wants to convey to customers. There may be circumstances in which allowing a particular exception to an employer’s dress and grooming policy would pose an undue hardship, but relying on the broad rubric of “image” to deny a requested religious accommodation may be tantamount to reliance on customer religious bias. That kind of deference to customer preference violates Title VII.
There may be limited situations in which the need for a uniform employee appearance is so important that modifying the dress code would pose an undue hardship. However, even in these situations, a case-by-case determination is advisable.