Employer May Violate Employee’s Rights By Refusing To Provide Religious Accommodation To Grooming Policy

Massachusetts law prohibits employers from requiring employees to violate a religious practice and therefore requires employers to provide a “reasonable accommodation” of their religious practice, so long as the accommodation does not create “undue hardship” for the employer. In Brown v. F.L. Roberts & Co., Inc., SJC-10155 (Dec. 2, 2008), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that the owner of a Jiffy Lube facility violated the law, G.L. c.151B, §4(1A), if it refused to provide a religious accommodation to its new grooming policy.

Here, the company implemented a grooming policy as part of a marketing strategy to increase business. Seriously. The new policy required employees who had contact with customers to be “be clean-shaven with no facial hair . . . . Hair should be clean, combed, and neatly trimmed or arranged. Radical departures from conventional dress or personal grooming and hygiene standards are not permitted.” The company, curiously, did not implement this policy at any of the other retail establishments it owned. The plaintiff, Bobby Brown, had occasional employee contact in his position and therefore was subject to the new policy. As Brown’s Rastafarian religion prohibits him from cleaning or shaving his hair, he asked for the employer to exempt him from this policy. The company refused, and instead transferred him to a position that did not involve customer contact, and that provided fewer breaks or certain other perks. Brown also alleged that the company refused to discuss any alternatives to its grooming policy.

The Court concluded that the company here violated the law, if Brown is able to persuade a jury of his version of events. The Court ruled that exemptions to a company grooming policy do not automatically create an “undue hardship” and therefore do not automatically protect a company from liability. The Court also ruled while it is not necessary for the employer to grant an employee’s specific request for an accommodation, the employer has a duty to explore acceptable alternatives with the employee. In reaching this conclusion, the Court discussed a previous case in which the employer refused the employee’s request for an exemption to a grooming policy but proposed several other accommodations. The employer in that case did not violate the law. Here, Brown alleged that the employer refused the request for a complete exemption from the policy and simply re-assigned him without exploring any alternatives. The Court concluded that a jury will have to decide whether the Company’s unilateral re-assignment of Brown qualified as a reasonable accommodation.

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