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Is a policy against beards and long hair on men illegal in Florida?

After two EEOC charges of discrimination were filed, and an EEOC investigation was launched, the EEOC issued the business a Letter of Determination on the charges of discrimination, finding reasonable cause to believe that Title VII was violated.  The EEOC determined that it was unable to secure from the company a conciliation agreement acceptable to the EEOC, so it sued the company. 

The lawsuit was brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for religious discrimination and the EEOC included examples spanning an entire decade.

One applicant was told by a company hiring official he would have to shave to be considered for the position.  The applicant, who is Muslim, explained that he wears a beard as part of his religious observance. The hiring official replied that “God would understand” if he shaved his beard to get a job. The business told the applicant that he could apply for another position, which did not require customer contact, but the company did not hire him for either position.

An applicant informed the company that he wore a beard as part of his Muslim religious observance and inquired as to whether or not the company would grant him an exception, on that basis, to the appearance policy.  The applicant was told that the business granted absolutely no exceptions for beards. When the applicant inquired about the possibility of applying for another position, he was told to shave his beard and cut his hair if he wanted to work for the company.

Also, a Native American applicant explained that he wore his hair long as part of his religious observance and offered to wear it under his shirt or in a hair net, but was told,
“No hair cut, no job.”

Specifically, the EEOC lawsuit claimed that the company refused to hire individuals whose religion conflicted with the company’s appearance policy; and refused to promote, or in the alternative, failed to hire or transfer to a different position, individuals whose religion conflicts with the company’s appearance policy.

The EEOC lawsuit claimed that these unlawful practices include that the company refused to hire qualified employees:

a) because of their religion.

b) for the positions for which they applied, and were qualified to perform, because of religion and has instead directed those individuals into positions that are not subject to the company’s appearance policy.

c) whose religion conflicted with the company’s appearance policy and has not permitted those individuals to seek an accommodation to the appearance policy.

The lawsuit also claimed that the employer segregated individuals on the basis of their religion, by placing individuals whose religious beliefs conflict with the appearance policy into different job positions in its facilities based on the appearance policy and Defendant’s refusal to accommodate religious practices. The lawsuit claimed that the business segregated those individuals by keeping them in “back”-of-the-facility positions, which involve no customer contact.  The EEOC alleged that this adversely affected the terms and conditions of their work, including their ability to be hired and promoted, because of their religion.

Just a few days before January 2019 the EEOC and the business announced that they settled the religious discrimination lawsuit for
$4.9 million. EEOC v. United Parcel Service, Civil Action No. 1:15-cv-04141.

The manager of another Christian employee, after receiving the employee’s request for an accommodation to wear a beard in compliance with his faith, telephoned the employee’s minister to inquire as to whether the worker attended church regularly, whether his belief was sincere, and whether the Bible mandated a particular length of beard.

Another Rastafarian employee requested an accommodation to wear a beard, after being promoted. The company rejected his request because the employee did not identify a location or institution where the employee worshiped. The employee eventually provided the requested “documentation from his spiritual adviser” that satisfied the company and his request was granted, two years after he first sought the accommodation.

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Another employee, a Muslim, sought an accommodation to permit him to wear a beard while working as a customer service representative for the company. His first supervisor told him that no such accommodations existed and that if he did not shave his beard, he would be fired. Several years later, when the company finally informed the employee that he could avail himself of the company’s accommodation request process, it refused to grant the accommodation without first receiving certification from his iman that wearing a beard was part of the employee’s religious observance. It took the business an additional nine months to grant the accommodation.

One employee worked in a position with no customer contact, but tried to transfer to another position that had customer contact.  Upon reporting to his first day of training in anticipation of a promotion to the new position, he was told that he would not be permitted to work in that customer contact position because of his beard. The employee, who is Muslim, explained that he wore his beard as a religious observance and asked that he be provided an accommodation. The employee’s supervisor, stated that no such exception to the policy would be made. The employee then asked at least four other supervisors, including Human Resources personnel, for the form so that he could request a religious accommodation, and was repeatedly told that the supervisors were not aware of any such form. Only after he filed a charge of discrimination with EEOC, and two months after his initial request, did the company provide him with a form through which he could make a written request for a religious accommodation. In the intervening time, he lost the opportunity to train for a promotion for which he was qualified and lost wages.

The above “facts” came from the EEOC lawsuit and press reports.
Florida employers should consider this case a wake-up-call about beards and hair.  If your business has a restrictive grooming or appearance policy, it can be a lightening rod if there is an EEOC charge of discrimination.  Although it may be permissible in some situations to have a grooming policy or appearance policy that has such restrictions, as this case demonstrates, it may have to give way to religious accommodation requests.  As this case demonstrates, even if you do not go all the way through a jury trial, these type of incidents can be very expensive, and crippling, to settle.
There can be certain situations where an employer may have a legitimate business reason to prohibit long hair or beards, but the EEOC is very focused on this right now, especially when an applicant or employee requests that the employer make an exception to their policy due to the applicant/employee’s religious beliefs.

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An employer maintained an “appearance” policy that prohibited male employees in customer contact or supervisory positions from wearing beards or growing their hair below collar length.  Specifically, this policy was applicable to all employees in positions that require customer contact and the policy also applied to all employees with supervisory responsibility. The appearance policy prohibited male employees from having facial hair below the lip (e.g., beards) or from growing their hair below collar length. The appearance policy did not apply to “back” of the facility positions which did not involve customer contact.

One employee sought an accommodation to the appearance policy permitting him to wear a beard, consistent with his observance and practice of Islam. While awaiting the employer’s evaluation of his request, he often shaved his beard, against his religious beliefs, so that he could work. When he chose not to shave, the company sent him home without pay. Eventually, two years after his initial request, the company granted his accommodation, but instructed him that he would be required to reapply if, at any time, he was assigned a new supervisor.

Another a Muslim Information Technology Department employee was forced to shave and seven months after his first request for accommodation and only after three requests were made, did the company permit him to wear a beard limited to ¼ inch in length. When he applied for a promotion to a management position, the company required him to agree in writing that he understood that if he wanted a future promotion within the Information Technology Department, he would have to shave and that if he was to maintain facial hair, it could limit his opportunities for positions involving customer contact or management.

Another employee asked that he be permitted to wear a beard as part of his observance of his Christian faith. After three years of making verbal requests, the company finally provided the worker with the form to make a written request. Before his request was acted on, the employee’s supervisor asked him why, in light of his religious observance, he “had even bothered to come” to this company to work.

Another employee, who was a part-time supervisor and practicing Rastafarian, requested a religious accommodation to permit him to wear dreadlocks and refrain from cutting his hair, as his religious practice required. His manager ignored his request, told the employee he “didn’t want any employees looking like women on his management team,” and repeatedly asked the employee when he was going to cut his hair. When the employee contacted the human resources department, he was questioned as to why he practiced the Rastafarian religion at all since he is not Jamaican.

Can a Florida company prohibit dreadlocks and beards as part of its grooming policy or appearance policy?