Three cases brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) highlight the importance of employers considering religious accommodations for their dress code policies.  Pursuant to the law, a religious accommodation must be made as long as it does not impose an undue hardship to the employer.

Two of the cases brought by the EEOC are against popular clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch.  In both cases, Abercrombie & Fitch prohibited Muslim employees from wearing a hijab (a Muslim headscarf) because it violated their “Look Policy” which included a prohibition against head coverings.   On June 27, 2011, the EEOC sued the retailer claiming that it violated the civil rights of a Muslim woman, Hani Kari, when it fired her for refusing to remove her hijab.  A few weeks later, on July 13, 2011, the EEOC prevailed in another case against the retailer on behalf of a Muslim woman, Samantha Elauf, who was turned town for a sales position with the company in 2008 because she wore a hijab.

 On July 28, 2011, the EEOC sued a Taco Bell franchise owner, Family Foods, Inc., stating that it unlawfully terminated the employment of a devout Nazarite, Christopher Abbey, for not cutting his hair.  Nazarites do not cut their hair as a sign of their devotion to G-d.  Mr. Abbey began working for Taco Bell in 2004.  Mr. Abbey had not cut his hair for four years.  It was not until six years later that Taco Bell told Mr. Abbey that he had to cut his hair to comply with the company’s grooming policy.

 These three cases serve as a reminder to employers that simply because a dress code policy prohibits “undesirable looks” such as like tattoos, piercings, long hair, head scarves, the policy may not be reason enough to deny a religious accommodation.

 Tips to consider:

  • Communicate effectively with employees who request accommodations or exemptions from the rules.
  • Be open and willing to make reasonable accommodations.
  • Be consistent in your implementation of dress code and appearance policies.
  • If a dress code issue arises and you are not sure what to do, seek advice from an expert before it becomes a bigger issue.