A legal battle over a worker’s religious accessory shines a light on the fuzzy definition of “undue hardship” in employers’ responsibility to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs.
HR pros know they have to accommodate a staffer’s religious piece of clothing or accessory unless it creates an “undue hardship.”
A new case out of New York stretches the definition of “undue hardship” — and shows what happens when a company takes an inconsistent stance on its dress code or appearance policy.
‘I’ll take it off if …’
Vincent Hickey, Jr., a born-again Christian, was hired as a full-time painter at the State University of New York at Stony Brook Hospital.
Hickey Jr., after being hired, regularly began wearing an “I Heart Jesus” lanyard around his neck.
Several weeks later Hickey’s primary supervisor told him he had to remove the lanyard. But since the hospital’s handbook didn’t prohibit religious paraphernalia nor specify a dress code or uniform for painters, Hickey refused.
Three weeks later Hickey was again told to remove the lanyard because it wasn’t part of his uniform.
Hickey Jr. responded that he’d remove his lanyard once other employees were required to remove their religious items — a Muslim woman wore a scarf, a Hindu staffer wore a turban and a Jewish employee wore a yarmulke.
Hickey Jr. was fired. He turned around and sued for religious bias.
Was it an expression of his beliefs?
The judge ruled in favor of Hickey — and sent the case to a jury.
At question: Hickey’s bona fide religious belief.
If Hickey actually believed that he had to wear the lanyard as an expression of his beliefs, then the hospital had to accommodate him unless it was an undue hardship to do so.
And, as Robin Shea on the Employment and Labor Insider blog points out, the hospital might have a hard time convincing a jury that allowing someone to wear a lanyard would be an undue hardship.
When is it an undue hardship?
This case isn’t the first to deal with a company’s perhaps-too-rigid appearance code policy.
Just last year, a staff member was fired for refusing to wear a sticker indicating the number of accident-free days the company had when the number reached “666.” That worker sued his company as well.
The takeaway from this and other similar cases, says Shea: Companies can claim undue hardship when a staffer’s religious article of clothing or accessory may impact the safety of the workplace.
They can also claim hardship if the item offends customers or colleagues.
But, as Shea says, it’s important for companies to treat each staffer’s beliefs as legitimate. And of course, you can’t say that one staffer’s religious paraphernalia is legitimate and arbitrarily decide another worker’s isn’t.
And ask yourself: Is this really an undue hardship?