A common workplace dispute involves dress code polices and deviations from dress and grooming standards. These disputes often result in a religious discrimination suit claiming violation of a protected religious expression.
Landmark workplace attire ruling
The landmark case on work place attire was EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch in 2015. In Abercrombie, a case involving the rejection of a job applicant because her headscarf conflicted with the retailer’s “Look Policy,” the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant if the employer was motivated by avoiding the need to accommodate a religious practice. The Court held that such behavior violates the prohibition on religious discrimination contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to the Supreme Court, "An employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed." The court continued that "...to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant's religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions."
Dreadlocks as a protected religious expression
A year later, the EEOC sued HospitalityStaff, a staffing company serving Florida’s hospitality industry, alleging that it violated Title VII by firing a Rastafarian employee because he refused to cut his dreadlocks, which he grew as part of his religious beliefs. He had kept them tucked under his hat without incident for his first year of employment, but after a Disney staff member saw him working in the kitchen, he was told he had to cut his dreadlocks before returning to work. He refused and was taken off the assignment. The EEOC's lawsuit charged that HospitalityStaff violated religious discrimination law by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to the employee by requiring him to cut his dreadlocks to comply with its client's grooming standards in order to keep his position.
Terms of the settlement
In settlement of this suit, the staffing company will pay $30,000 in damages to the employee, implement a company-wide accommodation policy that addresses reasonable accommodations, provide training to its managers and human resources personnel, and for three years voluntarily provide information to EEOC concerning its handling of religious discrimination complaints.
The case reflects the EEOC’s commitment to address emerging issues in the workplace. The six national priorities identified by the EEOC's Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for 2017 – 2021 include:
- eliminating barriers in recruitment and hiring
- protecting vulnerable workers, including immigrant and migrant workers, and undeserved communities from discrimination
- addressing selected emerging and developing issues
- ensuring equal pay protections for all workers
- preserving access to the legal system
- preventing systemic harassment.
This case fits within most, if not all of these categories.
Contact our employment litigation attorneys
Employers need to be aware that attire and grooming policies, as well as hiring, firing and other employment decisions based on appearance, have the potential of violating religious expression. If you have any questions regarding workplace policies and procedures related to dress and grooming standards or require assistance for drafting neutral employment attire and grooming policies, please direct your inquiries to Kristin Tauras at McKenna Storer.