Workplace requirements regarding grooming and appearance can constitute sex discrimination; they can also constitute a religious discrimination in certain circumstances. Religious discrimination occurs when these requirements have an adverse effect on employees who subscribe to a certain religion. An employee generally has the right to wear clothing that is required by their religion at work unless it creates an undue hardship for the person’s employer.
In general, an employer can require employees to observe a workplace dress code and regulate the appearance of their employees, as long as the dress code is not discriminatory. For example, an employer cannot impose dress codes on only one person, or only on employees who subscribe to a certain religion. On the other hand, an employer can impose different dress codes and grooming requirements for men and women if they are reasonable and are justified by business considerations. For example, an employer can require that women wear makeup and men have short hair.
Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits an employer from treating an employee differently, or less favorably, because of their membership in a certain group, specifically race, color, sex, religion and national origin. Discrimination on the basis of sex has been defiend to include discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The law also forbids employers from making decisions on the basis of stereotypes, or unfair or untrue generalizations about people made on the basis of their gender or race.
Title VII forbids employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. These protections apply even if state or local laws state something different, because Title VII is federal law. Every worker, regardless of their gender, is protected from sex discrimination by Title VII.
Laws against discriminatio in the workplace based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex national origin or other prohibited factors are enforced by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Thus, the EEOC works to resolve claims of illegal discrimination, including that based on religion.
Examples of Grooming and Appearance Policies That Are Discriminatory
Some grooming and appearance policies might have a negative impact on certain religious groups. For example:
- Beards: A strict “no beard” policy can discriminate against various persons who wear beards for religious reasons. This policy would prevent these groups of people from working because of their religion and this would which constitute discrimination;
- Dresses and Skirts: A requirement that skirts or dresses be a certain length can conflict with the religious beliefs of some employees. Several religions require women to wear skirts or dresses and not pants, and they further prescribe the length. They require that women wear other garments as well. So requiring women to wear skirts of a certain length could keep certain women out of the workplace on the basis of their religious beliefs. This would be discrimination on the basis of religion.
A religious belief can include beliefs that are associated with non-organized religions and personal convictions. If an employee sincerely believes that a particular religious practice is necessary, then an employer must work to identify possibilities for accommodation. It does not matter if the employer does not accept the belief.
In another example, in a federal case, a bank made its female employees wear uniforms while male workers were allowed to wear suitable business dress. The bank did not require its male employees to wear uniforms because the bank thought that women were less capable than men of choosing appropriate business attire. The bank believed that men could do it, but women could not.
The court held that this amounted to subjecting women to illegal sex discrimination. No evidence was presented that female workers had ever worn unacceptable business attire on those days when they were permitted to wear “street clothes” while their uniforms were cleaned. The court ruled that the justification given, i.e., that women were less capable than men in choosing appropriate business attire, was based on offensive stereotypes of the kind prohibited by Title VII.
What to Do in the Case of a Discriminatory Grooming or Appearance Policy
If a business has a policy as to grooming or appearance that does discriminate on the basis of religion, it would most likely have to make some reasonable accommodation for employees who experience the impact of the policy. In the case of grooming and appearance, the employer would have to allow the employee to maintain their appearance in accord with their religion or come up with an alternative that satisfies both the employer and their employee.
If the employee still believes that they have been the victim of discrimination on the basis of religion, they should file a complaint with the EEOC. In most cases, employees must first file a complaint with the EEOC before they can file a civil lawsuit in federal court. Or, many states have agencies that are the equivalent of the EEOC and where the employee can lodge a complaint.
Can I Require Employees to Wear A Uniform?
An employer may require employees to wear a uniform. They can also require employees conform to weight requirements and fit into a uniform of a certain size, as long as this does not result in gender discrimination.
An employer can deduct the cost of a worker’s uniform from their paycheck, as long as this does not cause the worker’s wages to fall below the minimum wage required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). An employer cannot require a worker to wear clothing that it sells or from which it makes a profit.
Other Tips on Grooming and Appearance Requirements
Grooming and appearance requirements must be related to the job in some way. Also, remember that an employee may be in violation of a certain policy for religious reasons. An employee should resist the urge to react quickly when they see a violation. Rather, it is a good idea to discuss an issue with the employee before taking any other action. If an employer fires the employee and it turns out that the employee violated the employer’s policy for a religious reason, the employer could be sued for religious discrimination.
An employer cannot specifically forbid employees from wearing all union-related clothing. However, a rule against wearing a certain type of clothing, such as a t-shirt, can legitimately prevent employees from wearing union-related clothing of that type. An employee does have a right to wear union buttons and pins at work unless this creates a safety risk. Or, if the employer has a dress code that forbids wearing buttons and pins of any type, including patriotic symbols such as flags, then forbidding union buttons or pins may be possible.
Do I Need a Lawyer for A Grooming and Appearance Policy Problem?
An experienced discrimination lawyer can help you come up with and implement a grooming and appearance policy that takes into account the religious needs of employees.
A discrimination lawyer can assist you in working with an employee to find a reasonable accommodation that works for both of you. If you are sued for religious discrimination because of your grooming and appearance policy, a lawyer can represent you in administrative hearings and in court.