HR knows how tough enforcing company policies can be. But it can be even tougher to decide when you need to bend the rules to avoid a day in court.
For example, the EEOC recently filed a lawsuit against the Grand Central Partnership, a business coalition in New York City. The problem? A dress code policy requiring security guards to keep long hair tucked under their hats.
The suit involves four Rastafarian guards whose faith prohibits them from cutting their dreadlocks, which have become too long to fit under a cap. The employees were disciplined for breaking the policy, and two of them had been suspended.
They had asked if they could tie the hair behind their backs, but the company wouldn’t make a policy exception.
When company rules and employee beliefs collide
Only time will tell how the employer fares in this case. If recent decisions have made one thing clear, it’s that courts are reluctant to question the legitimacy of employees’ religious beliefs.
That said, there are many times when policies can be strictly enforced, even if workers claim they can’t follow them. Here are some questions your managers should be able to answer when an employee asks for an exception to the rules:
- Is safety an issue? — As a rule of thumb, safety trumps everything. Courts won’t require a company to do anything that jeopardizes the health of an employee or his or her co-workers.
- Is there a ‘business necessity?’ — Companies usually prevail when they can prove making an exception to the rules will affect their ability to conduct business. For example, many companies ban visible tattoos on employees who meet customers face-to-face. Employees with religious ink probably won’t have a case for an exemption, since courts have upheld rules that require a professional appearance in front of customers.
- Is the policy consistently enforced? — One thing companies can’t do is let a rule go unenforced and then come down hard on an employee who might have a religious bias claim. In one recent case, an employee was fired for failing to cover his faith-mandated tattoos — despite the fact that he’d worked for six months without being reprimanded, and other tattooed employees hadn’t been disciplined. After failing to get the case thrown out, the company paid a $150,000 settlement (Cite: EEOC v. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Inc.).