July 17, 2017

religious discrimination based on headwear

Two recent religious discrimination settlements spotlight what can happen when organizations enforce dress codes and grooming policies that aren’t in line with federal and state laws.

The first case involves a staffing firm serving the hospitality industry that agreed to pay $30,000 and implement other steps to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC charged that the company violated religious discrimination law by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee, a Rastafarian, and requiring him to cut his dreadlocks to comply with the grooming standards of a hotel client. The company took the employee off his assignment and did not reassign him.

Rastafarians wear dreadlocks as part of their sincerely held religious beliefs. Making an employment decision because of such a religious practice violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC said.  

Under the settlement, the staffing firm will pay the employee $30,000 in damages and also revise its employee handbook and policy manual to include a policy for providing reasonable accommodations for both disability and religious-based requests. Further, the company will train managers and HR staff, and voluntarily provide information to the EEOC on its handling of religious-discrimination complaints for three years.

Go-karts and headwear
The other case involves a national amusement-park chain that agreed to pay $32,000 to resolve five complaints of discrimination for allegedly barring Muslims and a Sikh from riding go-karts because of their headwear. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), the agency charged with enforcing the state’s civil rights laws, filed the complaints against the owner of an amusement-park chain.

According to the DFEH, the company violated the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act in 2013 by turning away seven Muslim women and girls and a Sikh man from riding go-kart attractions at its Vista, Irvine and Livermore locations because each wore an Islamic headscarf (hijab) or Sikh turban, respectively.

While the company claimed its “no headwear” policy was in place for safety reasons and applied to all customers, the complainants alleged the policy was selectively enforced against Muslim and Sikh customers, the DFEH said.

Under the settlement, the company will revise its policies to welcome customers with religious headwear, and open its go-kart rides to customers wearing securely wrapped Sikh turbans and hijabs. As an additional safety measure, the company will lend customers safety pins, thathas (a cloth frequently used by Sikh men and tied at the top of the head), or specially designed turban-nets.

The company is also required to provide anti-discrimination and sensitivity training for its California employees for five years and hire a neutral third-party to monitor the implementation of the new policies for 18 months. In addition to promoting compliance with anti-discrimination laws, the company will pay $4,000 in compensation to each of the eight individuals.  

Traliant Insight
Workplace grooming policies and dress codes should be carefully written and regularly reviewed to make sure they do not single out any particular group or gender. Of course, such policies must also help protect employers from discrimination claims and address any health and safety factors. Training managers and HR staff on how to properly handle employee requests for reasonable religious accommodations can also reduce the risk of discrimination claims.  Whether it’s a request for flexible work hours or making an exception to a headwear policy, the goal is to foster a diverse workplace that allows employees to be successful in their jobs, without compromising their religious beliefs − and without causing undue hardship to the organization.