Dress for success

This season, the network that originally brought you “COPS” is giving the oversaturated police-television show market a somewhat fresh take through its cop comedy called “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The show stars Andy Samberg as Det. Jake Peralta, a “talented, but carefree” (Fox’s words—not mine) detective dealing with his new hard-nosed, rule-following boss, played by Andre Braugher. You may remember Samberg from his digital shorts on Saturday Night Live, or as one-third of the comedy music act, Lonely Island. While the premise of Samberg’s new television venture is pretty standard, the show itself has so far proved funny and entertaining.

The show draws a good bit of its humor from the seemingly awkward to downright inappropriate workplace interactions among the cast members. From attempted interoffice relationships to inappropriate nicknames, to openly gossiping about the new boss’s assumed sexual preferences, just the pilot episode racks up quite a stack of complaints for the NYPD’s human resources department to wade through. But buried hidden behind the more overtly inappropriate conduct was a workplace issue that has recently been brought to the forefront of HR law—employee dress codes.

In the pilot episode, the new captain implements a requirement that all male detectives wear a necktie. While seemingly neutral on its face, such requirements can cause an employer to run afoul of employment laws when such requirements infringe on an employee’s religious convictions. Although Samberg’s character combats the necktie requirement by making snide comments and sarcastic remarks (such as handing neckties to fellow detectives as awards for correctly answering questions and referring to a murder scene as a “10-tie situation”), in the real world, an employee whose sincerely held religious beliefs prevent him or her from complying with a dress code policy may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit recently tackled a similar issue in a suit arising out of clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch’s policy prohibiting its salespeople from wearing any sort of headgear. In June 2011, a federal district court in Oklahoma granted summary judgment to the EEOC, suing on behalf of a female Muslim plaintiff, who alleged Abercrombie failed to hire her for a sales position after she wore a hijab (traditional Muslim headscarf) during her job interview. The EEOC claimed the company engaged in unlawful religious discrimination by failing to exempt the applicant from the policy based on her religious beliefs. The 10th Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling, however, based on the undisputed fact that the female applicant never directly informed her interviewer that she was a Muslim nor specifically requested an accommodation based on her religious beliefs. As a result, the 10th Circuit’s ruling vacated a jury verdict of $20,000 against the company. It also created a split amongst federal circuit courts of appeals regarding which party bears the burden to bring to light the need for a specific accommodation for religious reasons. Several experts and commentators have noted that the U.S. Supreme Court may choose to review the case to resolve the split if the EEOC decides to pursue an appeal.

But while we wait for a potential resolution from the Supreme Court, employers should use this case as a reminder that employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with company policy may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation if doing so wouldn’t create an undue burden on the employer.