Our appearance policy has not been well-enforced in the past but requires all employees to be clean-shaven. One of our employees says he cannot shave his beard due to religious reasons. What is the best way to handle this?
Offering an accommodation—which in this case would simply be an exemption from the policy—is generally the best option when it comes to religious tenets that conflict with dress or appearance policies. If you have concerns about sanitation, the employee can certainly be asked to wear a beard or hair net if that is something you expect from all employees with longer hair.
For some legal background, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against religious discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is the government agency that enforces this law, requires that employers offer reasonable accommodations to employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with workplace policies or guidelines, so long as those accommodations would not create an undue hardship on the employer. It is unlikely that allowing certain individuals to wear beards would create that kind of hardship.
With respect to your policy generally, it’s worth noting that a number of states have recently passed laws that protect natural hair styles, or, more broadly, traits associated with race. In light of this, and the need to accommodate religious beliefs, you may want to rework you policy so that it focuses on cleanliness and generally accepted good-grooming habits rather than hair length, location, or style.
Answer by Kara Govro, JD, SPHR