Workplace Grooming Policies And The Discrimination Risk They Present

Written exclusively for ChubbWorks

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against a fast food restaurant franchisee, alleging religious discrimination.

The EEOC alleges that when the employer offered the plaintiff a maintenance job, the manager informed him that workplace policy required him to shave his beard. The man told the manager that he is a practicing Hasidic Jew and could not, according to his religious beliefs, shave his beard. He did offer to wear a beard net, but the manager refused and did not hire him.

The EEOC attorney in the case stated the employer's actions were "unjustified and unlawful," and particularly egregious when a reasonable accommodation was available. "EEOC Sues McDonald's Over Religious Discrimination Against Florida Job Applicant" (Jul. 24, 2019).

Commentary and Checklist

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and practices unless doing so causes an undue hardship.

Employers can establish dress codes and grooming requirements, but must allow for exceptions for seriously held religious beliefs.

The employer in the above case will have a difficult time defending its actions, particularly if the evidence shows that the job offer was rescinded only after the applicant informed the employer that he could not shave his beard for religious reasons, and that he was amenable to the reasonable accommodation of a beard net. Beard nets are commonly allowed in facilities, like this one, that prepare and serve food.

Here are some further suggestions to help you limit discrimination risk associated with grooming policies and dress codes:

  • Create a detailed, written appearance policy. Communicate your appearance policy to new employees and job applicants.
  • Employers should base their appearance policies on objective criteria.
  • An accommodation provision is critical for any appearance or hygiene policy. Employers should be ready and able to accommodate employee needs with regard to religion, disability, and other reasonable requests.
  • Distribute your appearance policy, train your employees on it as part of discrimination training, and enforce the policy consistently.
  • Make sure your employees, particularly managers and supervisors, know how to request a reasonable accommodation.
  • Allow employees who violate a grooming or appearance policy an opportunity to correct the issue. Most violations are honest mistakes.
  • Before terminating an employee for violating an appearance policy, consult with an attorney, especially if the employee has objected for reasons associated with alleged discrimination.
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