Company Image Policy Leads to Discrimination Claim

Successful professionals promote values of cultural diversity, inclusion, and teamwork.  However, occasionally a company policy of general application may have the unintended consequence of infringing on the religious practices of individual employees.  Professional employers must tread cautiously when such a situation arises.  Unintended discrimination may nevertheless violate civil rights laws protecting religious liberty.   

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear such a case involving a national clothing retailer and a Muslim employee who was terminated for wearing a religious headscarf known as a hijab.  The employee began working with the retailer in 2009 as an associate and was initially asked to wear headscarves only in company colors.  The following year, however, the employee was informed that wearing the headscarves violated the company dress code, and was prohibited from wearing the headscarf at work.  The employee refused to comply with the dress code and was terminated shortly thereafter.

The employee subsequently informed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the incident, which filed suit against the retailer in 2011 in federal court for violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VII prohibits discrimination based on religion and requires employers to accommodate the sincere religious beliefs or practices of employees unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.  The district court sided with the EEOC, dismissing the retailer’s claims that the dress code was critical to its business model and that wearing the headscarf could jeopardize its performance.  The retailer appealed, and the 10th Circuit overturned the decision, ruling that no discrimination had taken place because the employee failed to give explicit notice that she needed a religious accommodation.  The Supreme Court will now decide whether direct, explicit notice is necessary to sustain a Title VII religious discrimination action.

Regardless of the outcome in the Supreme Court, professionals and other employers must take notice of the potential for general policies to discriminate against religious practices.  Failure to accommodate an employee’s reasonable religious practices absent a bona fide objective may violate civil rights laws and lead to liability.