EEOC: Applicants’ Religious Beliefs Must Be Considered

EEOC: Applicants’ Religious Beliefs Must Be Considered

A recent settlement agreement between United Parcel Service (UPS) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) serves as a reminder that accommodating job applicants’ religious beliefs supersedes an organization’s appearance policy in most cases, even when the job’s role is public-facing.

UPS agreed to pay $4.9 million to settle a religious-discrimination class-action suit originally brought by the EEOC in 2015. The agency alleged that since at least 2005, UPS failed to hire or promote individuals whose religious practices conflict with its appearance policy and provide religious accommodations to its appearance policy at facilities throughout the United States. Company policy prohibits male employees in supervisory or customer-contact positions, including delivery drivers, from wearing beards or growing their hair longer than collar length.

Specific allegations in the suit included Muslim applicants being told they would have to shave their beard for driver positions, a Native American man told he would have to cut his long hair in order to be hired, and Rastafarians denied positions due to the length of their dreadlocks.

The EEOC further alleged that UPS, as a matter of policy, hired employees who maintained beards or long hair in accordance with their religious beliefs into nonsupervisory, back-of-the-house positions without customer contact.

The EEOC maintained that such workplace practices violated Federal law, which requires employers to make exceptions to their appearance policies to allow applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices,” he said.  The EEOC further argued that customer preferences—even the anticipated loss of business—does not constitute an undue hardship upon a business.  For that reason, employers may not, when making hiring decisions, assign new hires to a back-of-the-house position because of actual or feared customer preferences.

Takeaways for Employers

Employers should review their dress and appearance policies periodically and consider inserting language affirming the organization’s willingness to consider accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs.  The EEOC further encourages employers to engage in an interactive dialogue with applicants when evaluating reasonable accommodation requests.