Fashion Trends, Religion and the Law: How Religious Beliefs Can Affect an Employer’s Dress Code Policies

Recent news reports suggest that men wearing beards, a trend recently experiencing a renaissance, may have peaked and the trend may now revert to a more clean shaven look.  While trends in beard growing, like all fashion, tend to run in cycles, employers are often left scrambling to adopt dress and grooming codes to accommodate the changing trends.  One issue that often lurks just below the surface of dress code policies is “what if the dress – or grooming – of an employee is driven by religious beliefs?”  That is, what if the beard that the employee is wearing is not merely a sign of his fashion sense, but instead a requirement of his religion?

Recently, the EEOC provided guidance on “religious garb and grooming in the workplace.”  The EEOC reminds employers, in most cases, they “are required … to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices.”  Certain exceptions may apply, but it is important to recognize that in general employers may not prohibit an employee from wearing clothing or engaging in particular grooming styles if the employee’s reason for doing so is driven by their sincerely held religious beliefs.  The EEOC notes that the rule extends to situations where a conflict exists between what a company may perceive as its “image” and the employee’s religious dress or grooming.

Although fashion trends may ebb and flow, employers should proceed with extreme caution when attempting to prevent an employee from wearing religious dress or engaging in grooming practices in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief.  Such attempts risk a finding that the employer has violated the employee’s rights under the law.

© 2014 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

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