A HAIRY QUESTION: STELLAR EMPLOYEE DENIED PROMOTION DUE TO BEARD AND TURBAN?
QUESTION: For the past three years, I have worked as an engineer at a local firm. My work has always been rated outstanding, and the firm has received some patents based on my ideas. However, I have not been promoted to a higher position, where I would interact with engineers and designers statewide. I have not even been allowed to present my ideas at meetings or conferences – that task is often given to a manager (who doesn’t really understand the math). I asked my supervisor about this. After trying to dodge the issue, he said that the company’s dress code requires that any male employee dealing with the public must be clean shaven, and cannot wear any headgear. I am a Sikh. My religion forbids me to cut my beard, and requires the wearing of a turban. This is not some fashion choice; it is part of my religious identity. Should I complain?
ANSWER: You absolutely should complain. And you may also want to sue. Your rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act are probably being violated. Title VII applies to businesses with at least 15 employees, the ELCRA applies to employers with as few as one employee.
Both laws forbid religious-based discrimination in employment. Denying workers benefits, training, promotion, or other rights based on religion violates the laws, as does denial of a “reasonable accommodation” for sincerely held religious practices – like wearing a turban. It is also a violation of Title VII to keep employees out of public view based on their religious garb or facial hair.
Generally, an employer’s assertion that a dress code is required to promote a corporate image is not enough to relieve it from the obligation to allow an exception from the policy for a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
In EEOC v Greyhound Lines, for example, the Maryland District Court found merit to a Muslim woman’s claim that she should be allowed to wear her abaya and hijab, instead of a pants and shirt uniform, to work as a bus driver where the woman sincerely believed that she would violate her religion if she wore the uniform. And a federal court in New Jersey court found in favor of a man who had been denied a promotion because, like you, he wore a beard for religious reasons.
A dress code is more likely to withstand a challenge that it affects religion if is safety-related. In 2010, for instance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld a prison’s ban on “scarves and hooded jackets” against a challenge by some female employees that it barred them from wearing a khimar, a, head scarf that covers the head, shoulders and part of the chest, worn by many Islamic women as part of their religious practice. The court found the prison’s interest in preventing the introduction of contraband into the prison, and the possibility of loose garments from being grabbed by inmates and converted into weapons was sufficiently strong to overcome the women’s challenge.
Employers would be wise to be more welcoming to workers, like you, who follow religious practices that dictate certain modes of dress or hair length. The Sikh religion, for example, is now the fifth largest in the world, with an estimated 27 million followers. In 2015,there were about 1.8 billion Muslims – roughly 24 percent of the global population — according to the Pew Research Center. Christianity, in its various denominations and branches, has an estimated 2.2 billion adherents.
Ask your employer for a religious accommodation from the no facial hair, no headgear dress code. If they refuse your request, you may want to talk to a lawyer.
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By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
GWINN LEGAL PLLC
900 Wilshire Drive, Suite 104
Troy, MI 48084
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