The Case of the Hijab

Topic Progress:

After applying for a school counselor position, a woman was turned down for the position because she wore a head covering as an observation of her faith. The school district had a blanket policy against teachers and staff wearing any hats or head coverings, for any reason whatsoever (i.e., even if the head covering was religiously-motivated).

When she was told the reason for not being hired, she explained that the tenets of her faith did not require this specific head covering. However, she personally believed in covering her head and chose to adhere to the practice, as many other female followers of her religion do.

The applicant sued the school district, alleging discrimination in hiring on the basis of religion.

Key Issue: Individual interpretations of religious observances.

Ruling: Refusing to hire violated Title VII, which protects a person’s own understanding of his or her beliefs and practices.

Implications: Attire issues are among the most common religion-related issues. To welcome and get the benefits from a diverse workforce, flexible attire policies are critical. Declining to hire this candidate due to a head covering opened the school to a lawsuit. More importantly, the school lost a talented teacher and the chance for its students to experience diversity in a very direct way.

What should a manager do?

Title VII requires that a “prospective employee’s religious observances or practice” be accommodated. When interviewing, managers should focus on the job’s requirements, avoid letting extraneous information interfere with decision making, and hire the best qualified candidate. (Note, however, that under Title VII religious organizations are exempt from the prohibition. It states: “a religious corporation . . . with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation . . . of its activities” can use religion as the basis for hiring decisions.)

A manager could consult the human resources department regarding hiring procedures. The department should make clear that discrimination based on religion is not tolerated by the organization in any aspect of employment, including hiring.

If there is any question about this, the human resources department may want to consider proactive measures to prevent discrimination in hiring, like setting guidelines for managers who conduct interviews.