The Case of the New Yarmulke

A Russian immigrant had worked as an account representative at a large financial institution. Over time, he became more deeply committed to his Jewish faith and, after about two years, started wearing a yarmulke (skullcap) at all times.

Shortly after he began wearing the yarmulke to work, his manager casually remarked to the employee that he had made an interesting choice in changing his practices at this time. Soon after, an important client, who was assigned to that account representative, asked to be reassigned because she was uncomfortable working with an Orthodox Jew.

The manager moved the employee to an internal position with less public contact.

Upset by the job change and lack of support from his manager, the employee filed an EEOC complaint.
Key Issue: The incident suggests that employees are penalized for their beliefs.

Ruling: A similar case settled with an agreement to allow yarmulkes, accommodate Sabbath scheduling, and create a training program on religion at work.

Implications: Beware of off-hand remarks: this manager’s comment would likely have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t come just before the client’s request for a new account representative. Organizations have a difficult decision to make when clients make requests like this. Complying is risky if it violates the law or runs counter to a company’s policies or values.

What should a manager do?

The employee’s decision to wear a yarmulke is really no business of the manager, and no comment was necessary.

When the client expressed her desire for another account representative because of the religion of the employee and not because of his performance, the manager had to listen and then act as a change agent. The manager’s tough task is to tell the client that it would be against the law and company policy to remove her account representative for any reasons other than performance. He could assure her that the employee’s attire or religion never have, and never would have any impact on how he served her or any other client. The manager could even assure the client that the employee would never talk about his beliefs with her.

If the client continues to demand a new account representative, and her demands are not based on performance, then it’s time for the organization to take a stand and say, “We want to serve you well. We have provided you with the best. If you, for some reason, refuse to work with that person, then perhaps you should go somewhere else.” A short-term loss like this one is likely to be recovered in good word of mouth and an upturn in employee loyalty and commitment.