HR Management & Compliance

Tips For Avoiding Religion Bias Claims at Your Workplace

Yesterday, we told you how clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch landed in legal hot water for concluding that a religious headscarf known as a “hijab” was inconsistent with the “Abercrombie look.” Today, the details of the settlement—and some tips for avoiding similar problems at your workplace.

For the details of the allegations, click here.

The case outcomes

On September 23, 2013, the EEOC announced that Abercrombie had agreed to settle the Banafa and Khan cases but did not admit liability.

Under the settlement, Abercrombie will create an appeals process for denials of religious accommodation requests, inform applicants during interviews that accommodations to the Look Policy may be available, and incorporate headscarf scenarios into all manager training. 

The company will also be required to make regular reviews of religious accommodation decisions to ensure consistency and provide biannual reports to the EEOC and Khan. Khan and Banafa received a total of $71,000.

Religious Accommodations in California Workplaces—webinar coming next week! Learn more.

Just a week later, though, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling in the Tulsa case because Elauf never informed Abercrombie before its hiring decision that she wore her hijab for religious reasons and therefore needed an accommodation (EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 10th Cir. Court of Appeals No. 11-5110, 2013).

It’s not enough, the appellate court said, that the employer knows the practice stems from religious beliefs—it must also know that the individual actually needs an accommodation for the practice.

The court directed the district court to enter judgment in Abercrombie’s favor. The EEOC is reportedly considering an appeal. (California is not within the 10th Circuit, so its holding doesn’t necessarily apply here.)

Tips for avoiding religious discrimination claims

How can you avoid the religion-based litigation that’s plagued Abercrombie for years now? The most obvious path is to engage in good faith interactive discussions with employees and applicants who need reasonable accommodation of their beliefs and practices.

Reasonable accommodations for an employee might include:

  • Having other employees substitute for the employee by working his or her shift or hours when necessitated by, for example, religious observance;
  • Relieving the employee of specified duties that conflict with his or her religious beliefs;
  • Granting time off, including any reasonable travel time, for the employee’s religious observance;
  • Hiring another employee to perform specific duties instead of the employee;
  • Transferring the employee to another position or jobsite; and
  • Modifying workplace practices, policies, or rules, including dress or grooming standards.

It’s important to note that under California law, an accommodation that requires segregating an employee from the public or other employees (for example, in a back room) isn’t reasonable.

What’s ‘undue hardship’?

As Abercrombie learned, it’s not always easy to show that providing a religious accommodation would be an undue hardship under Title VII. And it’s more difficult under FEHA.

Under Title VII, an accommodation is considered an undue hardship if it causes more than a minimal or negligible cost on the operation of your business. Costs include not just the direct financial expenses but also the burden on the overall business.

For example, an undue hardship might exist if the accommodation reduces efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or conflicts with another law.

The state standard sets a higher bar, though, requiring "significant difficulty or expense" when considered in light of the following factors:

  • The nature and cost of the accommodation involved;
  • The overall financial resources of the facility that would provide the accommodation, the number of employees at the facility, and the effect on expenses and resources or the impact otherwise on the facility’s operation;
  • The employer’s overall financial resources, the number of employees of the employer, and the number, type, and location of its facilities;
  • The type of operation, including the composition, structure, and functions of the employer’s workforce;
  • The nature of the employee’s duties; and
  • The geographic separateness, administrative, or fiscal relationship of the facility to the employer.

Remember that even if an employee’s proposed accommodation truly would pose an undue hardship, that’s not the end of the matter—you must also explore alternative accommodations.

Religious Accommodations in California Workplaces: Your Obligations and Rights Explained


Tuesday, January 14, 2014
10:30 a.m. to Noon Pacific

Deciding whether to accommodate religious dress, grooming, and scheduling requests is something that virtually every employer in California will encounter. And it’s not an issue employers should take lightly.

The California Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012 (WRFA), which took effect January 1, 2013, amended the California Fair Employment and Housing Act to bar discrimination on the basis of religion or religious creed.

In addition to stating that a religious belief or observance includes religious grooming practices and dress, under this law, segregating an employee from customers or the public does not constitute an acceptable accommodation for religious practices.

The compliance challenge employers face can be great because religious creeds are broadly construed and can easily ignite costly legal battles if not handled correctly. For example, in September 2013, the EEOC announced a $158,000 settlement in a case involving a Sacramento car dealership.

The employer allegedly failed to accommodate a Seventh Day Adventist’s request to have from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday off because his religion required him to refrain from secular work during that period of time.

This case shows why it’s crucial to be aware of the legal and practical challenges that arise when it comes to religion in the workplace. Participate in this interactive webinar and learn how to avoid discrimination claims and accommodate your employees, all while meeting organizational needs.

Participate in this interactive webinar, and you’ll learn:

  • The key ways the WRFA has amended FEHA
  • What constitutes a “sincerely held religious belief” under Title VII and the WRFA/FEHA, and when your duty to assess whether a request for religious accommodation will be granted is triggered in California
  • What your policy about religious accommodations should state
  • The analysis to apply when deciding whether the requested accommodation, such as a request for certain days off, will result in an “undue hardship” on your organization
  • The difference between speculative reasons for denying a religious accommodation and concrete, legally defensible evidence that will support your position that granting the accommodation would result in an undue hardship
  • How to properly deny a request for accommodation—the type of documentation to draft and communicate to the employee requesting the religious accommodation
  • How to enforce your dress code and grooming policies without violating Title VII or WRFA/FEHA with respect to one’s religion, which may require certain dress, facial hair, and more
  • Practical pointers on how to make sure supervisors and line managers don’t misstep when a request for a religious accommodation has been made
  • Key takeaways from recent enforcement actions, lawsuits, and settlements related to requests for religious accommodation so you don’t make the same mistakes
  • And much more!

In just 90 minutes, you’ll learn obligations under Title VII and the WRFA/FEHA to provide accommodations to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Grab your spot today!

Download your copy of Training Your New Supervisors: 11 Practical Lessonstoday!

1 thought on “Tips For Avoiding Religion Bias Claims at Your Workplace”

  1. Perhaps the best practice is to assume something like a hijab requires accommodation, rather than being so rigid about something like a “look policy.” Especially when an accommodation would be cost-free.

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