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In Her Own Words Employers must recognize when to bend dress-code rules

  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at 5:28 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at 9:52 p.m.

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Many employers implement dress codes.

Some are created for safety reasons, and others are meant to help employees project a specific image to the public. While specifications and restrictions on employees’ dress are generally acceptable, employers must be aware of situations in which exceptions might be necessary.

Two recent court cases illustrate what happens when employers don’t have such an awareness.

In one case, an employee who worked as a housekeeper at a hotel chain was asked to remove her headscarf, which she wore in conjunction with her Muslim faith. Though employers have a duty to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs (when doing so wouldn’t cause an undue hardship), this employer terminated the individual.

After the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the employer, the company settled with the employee for $100,000. The company was also required to institute policies and training to address religious discrimination and retaliation.

In a similar case, a security guard refused to shave his beard, also worn for religious reasons. After his employer insisted he shave to comply with the company’s grooming policy, the employee went to the Counsel on American Islamic Relations for help. Shortly thereafter, he was suspended without pay. When the EEOC sued on this man’s behalf, a federal judge awarded him $66,000 in back pay and other costs.

The takeaway in these two cases is pretty straightforward, yet it’s an area in which employers continue to run into problems.

While refusing to alter bona fide safety restrictions is often defensible, making exceptions to dress code provisions that are not safety-related usually won’t constitute undue hardship. In both cases, had the employers been willing to make simple exceptions as religious accommodations, the lawsuits (and their costly results) could have been avoided.

Katie Loehrke is a human resources expert and editor with J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., a compliance resource firm. Loehrke specializes in employment law topics. For more information, go to www.jjkeller.com.

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