A Muslim employee of a security company wore a beard as part of his religious practice. When he was hired, neither he nor his manager was aware of the corporate policy prohibiting facial hair.
It didn’t take long before the human resources department informed him and his manager of the policy. The human resources representative told the manager that the policy made it clear that the employee could not wear facial hair if he intended to continue working for the company.
The employee wouldn’t shave his beard and resigned one week later. The company refused to pay the employee unemployment benefits because he had chosen to resign and wasn’t fired.
The employee sued, claiming he had been discriminated against and seeking the unpaid unemployment benefits.
Key Issue: A religious need clashes with grooming policy.
Ruling: A court awarded the benefits, explaining that shaving was not central to a guard’s duties.
Implications: Companies should examine policies and dress codes in light of religious needs. It’s short-sighted for companies to deprive themselves of qualified candidates or lose valuable employees based on a feature that’s unrelated to work – and it can put a company at legal risk.
What should a manager do?
Upon learning of the situation, the manager’s first action should be to apologize to the employee for not knowing about the policy upon hiring. The manager should then allow the employee to express his feelings and concern and, while not promising anything, ask the employee to refrain from quitting until the manager tries to sort it out.
The manager should quickly go to the human resources department and, if necessary, organizational leaders and deliver the message that there’s a need for this company to examine policies that impose job requirements that may not be necessary. Or, if they are important for some reason (like the corporate brand) this may be the time to make an exception in order to accommodate for a religious need.
The manager can also point out that policies like this limit the company’s ability to hire qualified candidates by imposing criteria that have nothing to do with how they do their jobs. The company risks losing talent.