EEOC Publishes New Guidance on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace

By Leigh C. Tinmouth

The EEOC recently published a question-and-answer guidance (“Guidance”) regarding religious garb and grooming in the workplace. The EEOC, through the Guidance, states that, in most instances, employers covered by Title VII must make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow their religious dress and grooming practices.

The EEOC observes that Title VII protects all aspects of “sincerely held” religious observances and religious beliefs. Under the Guidance,” religion” is defined broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, or only subscribed to by a small number of people. The Guidance emphasizes that an applicant or employee’s religious beliefs may be “sincerely held” even when the religious practices at issue are illogical or unreasonable to others, and even when they deviate from commonly-followed tenets of the applicant or employee’s religion. Non-observance is also protected, and discrimination based on an individual’s lack of religious beliefs is prohibited.

The EEOC, through the Guidance, takes the position that Title VII requires an employer to make an exception to its policies and practices (including its dress and grooming policies and practices) if an applicant or employee requires a religious accommodation for a “sincerely held” religious belief unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Customer preferences or maintaining a certain “image” do not constitute an undue hardship. Employers are also reminded that Title VII bars retaliation against an employee because the employee has engaged in protected activity (which includes requesting religious accommodation), and workplace harassment based on religion (which includes asking an employee to engage in a religious practice that is contrary to his or her beliefs).

The EEOC sets forth questions and answers pertaining to, among other issues, accommodating religious dress and grooming practices of employees who have only recently adopted religious observances, accommodating religious dress and grooming practices even when doing so will purportedly harm an employer’s “image,” and providing religious accommodations to employees with long hair or unshaven facial hair. Click here to review these questions and answers as well as other topics addressed in the Guidance.