‘Appearance’ policies can conflict with workers’ religion

Most employers value a professional-looking workforce. But problems can arise when a company’s idea of what constitutes a “professional look” bumps up against the religious customs and traditions of employees and job candidates.

For example, in one recent case a member of the Sikh faith applied for a sales job with a New Jersey Lexus dealership. The dealer’s dress code prohibited beards, but the man’s religion required him to wear a beard. The employer apparently told the applicant that he could have the job if he shaved, but the man refused.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on the man’s behalf, arguing that the employer’s failure to accommodate his religious beliefs was illegal discrimination. The dealer agreed to settle the case by paying damages to the applicant and providing anti-discrimination training to its managers and employees.

At the same time, employees need to be aware that their right to religious accommodation is far from absolute. An employer is only required to make “reasonable” accommodations – which means an employer can generally reject an arrangement that imposes more than a minimal burden on the business.

Employees also need to know that if they want a religious accommodation, they need to inform the employer ahead of time about their concerns.

For instance, a Muslim woman applied for a job as a floor model at an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store. Abercrombie maintains a “Look Policy” that requires workers to dress in ways that promote its brand. The woman was denied a job after she refused to remove a black headscarf that violated the policy.

The woman sued, but a federal appeals court in Denver sided with the store, saying the woman had never specifically put Abercrombie on notice that she would need a religious accommodation and never gave it a chance to come up with a solution that would meet her needs.

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