Could That Dress Code Be Worthless?

Pop quiz: Your company has a strict dress code, and you have always consistently held your employees to it. A new employee shows up for work one day blatantly violating the policy. You can discipline this employee without a second thought, right? Wrong. Before enforcing your dress or appearance policy, you better make sure that the employee is not claiming the reason for such an appearance is because of his or her religion.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued a new set of reminders to employers summing up the obligation to accommodate workers' religious beliefs, focusing on religious clothing and other appearance-based practices.

The main thrust of the new EEOC publication is that employers may need to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit workers to observe religious dress and grooming practices. They point out the most common practices that employers encounter on a frequent basis: religious clothing like a headscarf, turban or cross; clothing prohibited by a religion; and religious requirements to grow hair, including beards, dreadlocks or sidelocks.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The guidance cites a variety of religious practices - some that are unique or unusual enough that an average employer may not be prepared to accommodate them.

Some examples provided in the guidance are fairly obvious and easy to understand. A Muslim employee at a bank wants to wear a headscarf during Ramadan, and the employer would need to make an adjustment to its dress code to permit it. A Jewish consultant on a long-term assignment with a client should not be forced to abandon his yarmulke despite any client reservations. A Catholic librarian at a public library needs to be allowed to maintain black ashes on her forehead on Ash Wednesday.

However, employers should recognize that the rules don't apply only to common religions; instead, the EEOC employs an incredibly broad definition of what a "religion" is. Employers can't consider only Christians, Jews and Muslims and think that all others are outside the mainstream boundaries. The EEOC believes that just about every religious observance, practice or belief should be protected, even if it belongs to new, uncommon, nontraditional religions, and those not part of a formal church or sect.

Any practice based on theistic beliefs or nontheistic moral/ethical beliefs can be considered protected, and rarely is a case dismissed because the worker's belief is...

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