We have blogged on multiple occasions recently about religious accommodation issues and the blunders made by employers in dealing with these requests (see August 23rd blog for example). Although these issues can be complicated, they cannot simply be ignored or unilaterally denied without making some attempt to accommodate the employee.
The EEOC agrees with us that this has proved to be a difficult issue for employers and that the EEOC will continue to pursue these claims.
During an August 24th workshop sponsored by the EEOC’s Training Institute and the agency’s Washington, D.C., field office, a senior attorney noted that these types of cases are "low hanging fruit." Although I have always hated that expression, it does aptly describe these type of cases. The reason is that these cases, unlike a lot of employment cases, do not usually involve a lot of documents or witnesses. Instead, it usually involves a low level manager who is strictly enforcing a dress code that is usually contained in one or two paragraphs of a handbook.
As the senior EEOC attorney stated, managers need to be trained that certain religious beliefs may mean that employees cannot comply with a dress code. Managers also need to be trained that a dress code is not carved in stone and some flexibility may need to be applied.
Employers should be cautioned about trying to justify a dress code because they have an "image" that they want to convey to their customers. The EEOC, as noted at last week’s conference, has rarely accepted that as a business necessity that prevents making an accommodation. As we also reported last year, juries are also not too fond of that defense (see July 29, 2011 blog noting Abercrombie & Fitch’s failed attempt to use image as a defense).