Q: On the first day of work, a new employee showed up wearing a hijab (or head covering), which she was not wearing when we interviewed her, thereby presenting a dramatically different appearance. She has great work experience and will have significant in-person dealings with coworkers and customers. However, we are concerned that her Muslim religious attire may be distracting or make some people uncomfortable. What if a customer complains? Can we ask her to remove her hijab while at work or, if not, transfer her to a less visible work station?
A: It would be unlawful discrimination to deny employment or limit job assignments based on appearance related to an employee’s religious attire
or beliefs, whether the reason is merely fear of—or a response to actual—expressions of discomfort or objections from coworkers or customers.
You would be wise to remind managers and employees that discrimination based on religion or national origin is not tolerated by your company in any aspect of employment, including hiring and job placements.
You might also explore possible training or consider distributing information that reinforces proper hiring standards that focus on objective, job-related criteria.
Even if you fear that customer or client objections might translate into lost business, such financial concerns do not supersede employee rights and compliance with the law.
Instead, it would be appropriate to review with a client your mutually shared legal EEO responsibilities and the necessity of avoiding business or personnel practices that might draw either or both of you into a lawsuit.
Ultimately, if a customer refused to abide by such standards or insists you act in accordance with their discriminatory preferences, you may have to sever your business relationship with that customer to avoid potential liability.