Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grooming and appearance policies continue to make headlines as fulcrum of religious discrimination lawsuits


bob-marleyGrow your dreadlocks
Don’t be afraid of the wolf-pack
A tell you, one man a walkin’
And a billion man a sparkin’
Rastaman, live up

~Bob Marley, Rastaman Live Up

The EEOC has sued a Virginia moving company that refused to hire a Rastafarian because of his dreadlocks. According to the agency:

Christopher Woodson applied for a job as a loader at Lawrence Transportation’s Waynesboro, Va., facility in May 2008. Woodson, who is Rastafarian, wears his hair in dreadlocks in accordance with his religious belief that he should refrain from cutting his hair…. Lawrence Transportation refused to hire Woodson as a mover because he would not cut his hair, even though Woodson had fourteen years of experience in the moving industry, including several years with Lawrence prior to his conversion to the Rastafarian religion. To address the company’s concerns regarding the appearance of Woodson’s hair in relation to Lawrence Transportation's grooming policy, Woodson offered to tie his hair up, wear a head wrap or wear a cap over his head. The hiring official rejected Woodson’s offers and told Woodson that the company would not hire him if he did not cut his hair.

Amanda Hess, writing at TBD.com, quotes a press statement from Lawrence Transportation, in which it defends its decision:

“Lawrence Transportation did not hire Mr. Woodson because he would not comply with our personal appearance policy,” the statement reads. According to Lawrence Transportation, employees are required to have “close personal contact” with customers, and non-standard hairstyles could affect Lawrence's ability to “provide the service expected by” these people.

“[Woodson’s] hair was down to the middle of his back and he was asked to get it cut to about shirt collar length,” the statement continues. “He refused to comply with this neutral policy.”

Personal appearance policy is a huge red flag. As I’ve discussed before, Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that conflicts with a work requirement, unless the accommodation would create an undue hardship. The employer in this case is arguing that it does not have to accommodate Woodson because his long, dreadlocked hair will deter customers and cost it business. That argument, however, smacks of the very stereotypes Title VII protects against.

The EEOC continues to take a long, hard look at businesses that fail to accommodate religious practices that cause employees to look (or not look) a certain way. Unless your business can tie employees’ appearance to an integral part of your business (safety issues, Disney cast members, Abercrombie & Fitch’s “look”), you should think (and re-think) about any decision not to accommodate an employee’s religiously-based appearance or grooming.

[Hat tip: Overlawyered]


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

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