Does having grooming standards violate federal law?

August 5, 2019

Is it illegal to refuse to hire a person who cannot meet your company’s grooming standards due to a religious belief?

In July, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued a McDonald’s franchise alleging that it refused to hire a job applicant who would not shave his beard because of his religious beliefs.

The lawsuit claims that the applicant, a practicing Hasidic Jew, applied to work part time at the restaurant as a maintenance worker at one of McDonald’s Florida locations.

The EEOC alleges that the hiring manager told the applicant that he would be hired, but first needed to shave his beard to comply with McDonald’s “clean shaven” policy.

McDonald’s maintains a strict grooming policy that states “all employees must be completely clean shaven.”

The applicant notified the hiring manager of his need to wear the beard because of his religious beliefs and that he could not shave his beard.

The applicant instead offered to wear a beard net as a solution. Despite his offer of a compromise, the employer refused to hire him, according to the lawsuit.

The EEOC alleges that such conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for an applicant or employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs unless it imposes an undue hardship.

While employers don’t have to violate health and safety protocols to accommodate an employee, the applicant can claim that he offered a reasonable alternative that would have eased the health and safety concerns.

Moreover, the position seems to have involved more maintenance than food handling.

Grooming requirements are not just those that fall within the religious context. Setting grooming standards that negatively affect a certain racial or other minority groups or genders also might violate federal law.

The issue of grooming standards received more attention earlier this year when the New York Commission on Human Rights became the first in the country to issue enforcement guidance prohibiting policies that ban or restrict naturally curly hair, dreadlocks, braids, cornrows and other hairstyles associated with racial minorities.

Setting discrimination aside, the implementation of state laws, coupled with federal law compliance, is making it increasingly difficult for employers to set branding standards and comply with the myriad of legal requirements.

Many employers deny accommodations thinking it could affect health or safety requirements, but then fail to articulate the legitimate safety or health concern and that no alternative exists to ameliorate the legitimate concerns around health or safety.

Employers denying an accommodation because of health and safety issues should document the specific impact on health or safety and the attempts to engage in the interactive process to determine if an alternate accommodation can be provided.

Employers should not assume that no alternative accommodation exists or refuse to engage in a dialogue to make that determination.

If the employer identifies any legitimate health or safety concerns that still exist after attempting to provide a reasonable accommodation and considering all alternatives, the accommodation can be denied as an undue hardship.