26135611_sWe have often written that tattoos, certain headwear or other garb, and grooming habits, are not per se covered by Title VII.  That is, an employer can reject for hiring or otherwise discriminate against any person the basis of the above criteria.

Indeed, we just wrote (on March 2nd) about “lookism” or “beauty bias,” and said that there is nothing in the statute that prevents an employer from discriminating against someone who does not fit a “looks” requirement.

But not so fast!  We have also written a lot about how employment decisions based upon tattoos, certain headwear or other garb, and grooming habits may, in fact, run afoul of Title VII’s prohibiition against religious discrimination.  How, you ask?  Certain religions may require their adherents to conform to certain appearances, either clothing, body decoration or certain grooming habits.  And employers may be required to accommodate such practices.  For example, take a look at some of our more recent posts dealing with relevant religious discrimination cases which are arising with greater frequency, as are workplace bias cases based upon obesity — weight and height discrimination: October 16, 2013; July 9, 2012; February 11, 2011).

In order to make sense of all of this, and provide guidance for employers (which we always have tried to do), the EEOC has just published a report on “how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers can take to meet their legal responsibilities in this area.”

As if to underscore the need for such guidance, the Justice Department just sued the School District of Philadelphia for requiring a Muslim police officer to trim his beard under a new grooming policy which requires school police officers not to have a beard longer than a quarter-inch.  He claims that his religion forbids this.  An EEOC spokesman said:  “No employee should be forced to violate his religious beliefs in order to earn a living. Modifying a dress or grooming code is a reasonable accommodation that enables employees to keep working without posing an undue hardship on the employer.”  (United States of America v. School District of Philadelphia, case number 2:14-cv-01334, Eastern District of Pennsylvania).

In its guidance, the EEOC nicely sums up the examples that our readers are already familiar with:

“Examples of religious dress and grooming practices include wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts), or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks)).”

The EEOC then gives a brief Q and A, illustrated by examples, that we exhort all employers to read, since you are bound to come across such cases — they are no longer rare.

The key to all of this for employers, in our opinion?   Accommodation.

As the EEOC puts it:

“Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, when an employer’s dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.”

Go to it and read it – now!