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Elements of an Inclusive Workforce Development System

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

The following excerpt is from remarks delivered by Ms. Foster at a national Equal Opportunity Conference in Washington, DC:

It is a privilege for me to be here today, and this has been such an impressive line-up of civil rights experts.

The importance of you and the equal opportunity work you perform in the field of workforce development at this pivotal time in our country’s history cannot be overstated. If we hope to have a stronger, more stable economy at the national level, it must start with you at the local level.

Underlying everything we do in the field of equal opportunity is the concept that we don’t leave segments of our population behind to dead end. We want to help folks in our communities get jobs, or get better jobs. We want to find a way for all members of our community to engage and be productive, contributing citizens.

The vast majority of us and vast majority of the citizens in our communities are not independently wealthy. So, if we aren’t working, we aren’t earning money. And, if we aren’t earning money, we aren’t able to put a roof over our heads, food on the table, or clothes on our backs. And, where does that lead? Logically, it leads to increased demand on our safety net programs—homeless shelters or public housing, food stamps, free medical care, the list goes on.

No one has ever been able to explain to me how a stronger, more stable economy is built on leaving segments of a community behind in our workforce development programs whether it is women, minorities, limited English proficient persons, persons with disabilities, folks of a certain age, Veterans, or folks of certain religious beliefs.

Getting systems in place to move all of our populations forward, and training staff on the use of these systems, is where we need to spend a little time and thought as equal opportunity professionals. Not every customer is going to move along the same track, or at the same pace. The point is to get them moving as opposed to setting them off to the side.

As you work to develop inclusive workforce development systems, keep in mind these four core elements—communication, access, integration, and individualized treatment—must be front and center in your planning. Every speaker here today has addressed one or more of these elements. And, I am going to briefly describe each of these elements, and why they are important.

Communication

Communication takes two forms. First, is the one most of us think of immediately; that is, being able to understand what a customer is saying, and ensuring the customer understands us. So, if establishing that baseline communication with our customer means using a sign language interpreter, captioning, or a language line, than that is what needs to happen.

Now, the next level of communication involves “notice.” Notice to the public of what programs we have to offer, notice about how to access our programs, and notice that we operate these programs in compliance with the nondiscrimination and equal opportunity mandates of WIOA Section 188. Providing notice includes prominently displaying that “Equal Opportunity Is the Law” notice wherever we do business, and publishing our discrimination complaint procedures and forms.

On the other end of things, notice also includes making sure employers, to the extent they use screening tools like e-Verify or criminal background checks, give notice of any disqualifying adverse information to the potential applicant and allow the applicant an opportunity to explain or dispute it.

So, an inclusive workforce development program means we are able to communicate with our customers, and we convey important notices to them about their rights and our obligations under the nondiscrimination and equal opportunity provisions of WIOA Section 188.

Access

Access is another core element of an inclusive program. Access means folks have access to apply for, or participate in, our programs or activities. And, denial of access can take a variety of shapes.

One example is holding a training course on the first floor of a building, but folks have to get up the two steps at the entrance to the building. Without a ramp, some folks with mobility disabilities, who qualify to take this course, would be denied access to participate.

Another example of denial of access is one that I came across when I visited a particular locality to conduct training. The job referral counselor at the center would not even consider women for construction-related training or apprenticeship programs in welding, carpentry, masonry, and so on. Here, women who met the essential eligibility requirements for such training were denied access to even to apply for these programs.

And, access is a rising issue as we move forward with more internet-based application and enrollment processes. We are at the very beginning of what I describe as the incoming technology tsunami. The harnessing and use of various technologies on the market will undoubtedly strengthen many aspects of our workforce development programs and activities by building in efficiencies at a greater savings of staffing and money resources.

We’ve already seen the use of technology increase exponentially in the processing of unemployment insurance claims. And, the use of technology is growing in other areas such as computerized matching of a customer’s skills to available jobs in the market.

While these advances work for the vast majority of our populations, certain segments of our community’s population will be left behind. Persons with certain disabilities, and folks who are not able to read or write English very well could be denied access to programs for which they would otherwise be qualified.

I’ve heard some folks ask, why should we build systems around the exceptions? These folks need to come into the 21st Century.

Keep in mind, there is room in this country for all of us. Not every job out there requires an IT background, or access to the Internet. Not every job requires the ability to read, write, or speak English. Landscapers, cleaners, movers, certain construction trades, and caregivers are some examples of occupations that may not require IT savvy, access to the internet, or the ability to speak or understand English.

And, you’ve got some folks who are IT-savvy and understand English but, for example, they have a disability and need some type of auxiliary aid or service to navigate the internet application process.

The key here is to figure out what safety valves can be put in place in your particular community to ensure these populations aren’t left out. And, I think this is an excellent opportunity for the kinds of civil rights experts we’ve heard from today to establish a working group that includes folks like you and other interested stakeholders to work collaboratively to come up with some “best practices,” develop low or no cost resources, and generate ideas for resource-sharing and partnerships in our communities, to get these safety valves in place.

Integration

Beyond communication and access, we have the element of integration.

Decades ago, “Separate but Equal” was considered an acceptable way of doing business—whites could go to certain schools, blacks could go to other schools. Wisdom prevailed and we learned as a society that it is not healthy to divide ourselves by the color of our skin. Each of us has value beyond these surface qualities.

Unfortunately, the “Separate but Equal” concept is still with us, but it has morphed into other areas.

I’ll give you an example.

Too often, our workforce development programs are designed to channel persons with disabilities into separate tracks out of the gate. Regardless of the disability, or what the customer would like to do, we channel the customer to a single person at the center, or to rehabilitative services.

Earlier this year, I was asked to conduct training at a particular locality and visited one of its centers to gather a better understanding of how that locality operated its workforce development programs. The center had four job referral counselors. However, any person with a disability, regardless of the disability, would be referred to the one counselor designated as the “disability job referral counselor.” And, if that counselor was in a meeting, out of the office, or otherwise unavailable, the person with a disability had to make an appointment to come back another day.

On this particular day, a customer who was deaf came in and handed the greeter a resume and a card asking for sign language interpreter services so he could meet with a job referral counselor.

The “disability job referral counselor” at the center was out on vacation, one other counselor had a customer in her office, and two counselors were available.

At first, the center manager was going to ask the gentleman to reschedule a time the following week when the disability job referral counselor returned from vacation.

But, after a little discussion, the center manager called for a sign language interpreter who would arrive in the next 30 to 40 minutes. And, the manager had one of the available counselors at the center call the relay line in the meantime to get the process started.

As an aside, I’ll tell you that the customer on this particular day was a CPA and had advanced degrees in accounting as well as executive level accounting experience for a large company. He had relocated because of his wife’s change of jobs, and wanted assistance finding a job in his new community.

Here, the center provided assistance to him on the day he came, and did not ask that he make an appointment to come back in one or two weeks when the “disability job referral counselor” returned from vacation.

So, offering integrated services means here that each counselor should be able to take each customer in order, without regard to whether the person has a disability, is limited English proficient, is a Veteran, is a woman, and so on.

Individualized treatment

Finally, in addition to communication, access, and integration, our systems need to be designed provide individualized treatment.

The purpose of our workforce development programs is to move folks from unemployment to employment, or to transition folks from certain jobs to better jobs.

If someone comes to one of your centers directly, or comes through the unemployment insurance portal, individualized treatment requires that we start with that individual’s baseline.

What does this mean? It means we take an individual as we find him or her and work from there. We ask the customer, what skills, education, interests, and talents do you bring to the table?

At the other end of the spectrum, we take a look around to see what jobs are in our community and the skills and education required for those jobs. If we find a match, we make a referral.

If we don’t find a match, we look to bridge the gap. The first step across the bridge for some customers may be the local community college to obtain a certification, diploma, or degree. For others, the first step may be attending English as a Second Language classes.

But, keep in mind that not everyone is cut out for these types of educational pursuits. We don’t have to force all of our customers into the school or college pipeline for workforce development.

We’ve got other pipelines. Apprenticeships to learn a trade, on-the-job training, and licensing programs are some examples.

Keep in mind, folks don’t come to us out of nowhere—they have histories, they have skills, they have interests. Our job is to figure out what they bring to the table in terms of skills, education, and experience, and what workforce development pipelines would be suitable given their background and interests. And, if figuring out what someone brings to the table requires the use of a language line, captioning, or sign language interpreter services, then make sure that happens.

At the end of the day, our systems should be inclusive.

Inclusive systems will afford women access to opportunities in nontraditional fields. Inclusive systems mean we won’t skip over persons with disabilities, or persons who are limited English proficient, because we don’t know what to do with them, or because it takes a little extra time to get a sign language interpreter or connect to the language line.

Inclusive systems mean we’ll encourage employers focus first and foremost on an applicant’s qualifications, push the use of screening tools like criminal background checks and e-Verify, for example, as far back in the process as possible. And, we’ll stress the importance of employers giving an applicant the opportunity to explain, challenge, or clear-up any adverse results that surface through the use of these screening tools.

In the delivery of inclusive workforce development activities and programs, the elements of communication, access, integration, and individualized treatment are present.

From unemployment insurance to on-the-job training to resume writing assistance to job referrals to referrals for an apprenticeship program to counseling and many others, the key is to ensure all members of our population know about the programs, and have access to the programs. Make sure we are serving folks in as integrated a setting as possible, not placing folks off to the side because we don’t know what to do with them. And, we give folks individualized treatment to ensure their success.

At the end of the day, if a customer meets the essential eligibility requirements for a workforce development program or activity, then the customer must be allowed to enroll, apply, and participate.

Thank you for your time, and I wish you every success in the important work you do.

“EO Is the Law” and “EEO is THE LAW”: Understanding Some of The Distinctions by Seena Foster

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Depending on your source(s) of federal funding, there are certain required notices and posters that must be displayed prominently throughout areas where you meet, greet, and work with members of your public.  For example, if you receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for public housing, you are required to place “Fair Housing is The Law” posters throughout the areas where you interact with the public. For entities that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you are required to post the “Non-Discrimination Notice and Non-Discrimination Statement.” Recipients of funding by the U.S. Department of Education also must post a nondiscrimination notice.

These notices and posters are intended to promote compliance with federal civil rights laws by notifying members of (1) the public of their right to nondiscrimination, and (2) your staff of their obligations to conduct programs and activities in compliance with applicable civil rights laws.

Knowing what federal posters to display in the area of equal opportunity often can be confusing.  And, this is particularly true for Equal Opportunity (EO) Officers of agencies, organizations, and other entities that deliver services, aid, training, and benefits funded under Title I of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), amending the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).  For WIOA-funded programs and activities, the “Equal Opportunity is The Law” (referred to as “EO Is the Law”) poster must be prominently displayed throughout all public areas.  Recipients of WIOA Title I-financial assistance include state and local governments, American Job Network centers, Job Corps centers, local Workforce Investment Boards, Unemployment Insurance call centers, colleges, universities, and many other providers involved in the system of delivering WIOA Title I-related aid, benefits, services, and training.

The “EO Is the Law” poster, however, is often confused with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s “Equal Employment Opportunity is The Law” (referred to as the “EEO Is the Law”) poster.  Similarities in the titles of these notices often lead to confusion in understanding some of their differences.

For purposes of this paper, we will assume you serve as the EO Officer for an entity offering WIOA-funded workforce development programs and activities.  By law, the “EO Is the Law” notice must be prominently displayed throughout your public areas.  29 C.F.R. § 37.30 (WIA); 29 C.F.R. § 38.34, 38.36, and 38.39 (WIOA).

    The “Equal Opportunity Is the Law” notice

Equal Opportunity Is the Law

It is against the law for this recipient of Federal financial assistance to discriminate on the following bases:

Against any individual in the United States, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions, sex stereotyping, transgender status, and gender identity), national origin (including limited English proficiency), age, disability, political affiliation or belief, or, against any beneficiary of programs financially assisted under Title I of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, on the basis of the individual’s citizenship status, or participation in any WIOA Title I-financially assisted program or activity.

The recipient must not discriminate in any of the following areas:

Deciding who will be admitted, or have access, to any WIOA-Title I financially assisted program or activity;

Providing opportunities in, or treating any person with regard to, such a program or activity; or

Making employment decisions in the administration of, or in connection with, such a program or activity.

Recipients of federal financial assistance must take reasonable steps to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others. This means that, upon request and at no cost to the individual, recipients are required to provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services to qualified individuals with disabilities.

 What to Do If You Believe You Have Experienced Discrimination

 If you think that you have been subjected to discrimination under a WIOA Title I-financially assisted program or activity, you may file a complaint within 180 days from the date of the alleged violation with either:

The recipient’s Equal Opportunity Officer (or the person whom the recipient has designated for this purpose); or
The Director, Civil Rights Center (CRC), U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Avenue NW, Room N-4123, Washington, DC 20210.

If you file your complaint with the recipient, you must wait either until the recipient issues a written Notice of Final Action, or until 90 days have passed (whichever is sooner), before filing with the Civil Rights Center (see address above).

If the recipient does not give you a written Notice of Final Action within 90 days of the day on which you filed your complaint, you do not have to wait for the recipient to issue that Notice before filing a complaint with CRC. However, you must file your CRC complaint within 30 days of the 90-day deadline (in other words, within 120 days after the day on which you filed your complaint with the recipient).

If the recipient does give you a written Notice of Final Action on your complaint, but you are dissatisfied with the decision or resolution, you may file a complaint with CRC. You must file your CRC complaint within 30 days of the date on which you received the Notice of Final Action.

√    Initial and continuing notice required

As the EO professional for a recipient of WIOA-Title I financial assistance, you must ensure that “initial and continuing notice” is provided.  29 C.F.R. § 37.29 (WIA); 29 C.F.R. § 38.34, 38.36, and 38.39 (WIOA).  What does this mean?

This means the “EO Is the Law” notice must be “prominently” posted in a variety of places at your center, agency, facility, office headquarters, and any other location open to the public.  And, it must be available in an alternative formats for persons with disabilities, and in other languages for individuals who are limited English proficient.

You must document initial and continuing notice to a beneficiary or potential beneficiary.  For this reason, you must ensure there is “a record that such notice has been given” in “the participant’s file.”

Persons who are limited English proficient (LEP) also must receive notice.  Consequently, the “EO Is the Law” notice should be available in appropriate languages.  Check with your state EO leadership, or with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center, for LEP-related materials, including versions of the “EO Is the Law” notice in other languages.  The U.S. Department of Justice Web site, at www.lep.gov, also offers valuable guidance.  

Providing notice on a “continuing basis” means, in addition to prominently-placed posters, the notice must be communicated through internal memoranda and other written or electronic communications.  It must be included in your handbooks and materials.

Continuing notice extends to including taglines that the recipient is an “equal opportunity employer/program,” and “auxiliary aids and services are available upon request to persons with disabilities” in your:

●     recruitment brochures;

●    orientation materials and presentations;

●    written and oral communications to staff, clients, or the public regarding WIOA-Title I programs and activities; and

●    publications and broadcasts regarding the WIOA-Title I programs and activities.

Moreover, during each orientation session, you must include a discussion of rights under WIOA’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity provisions at Section 188, including the right to file a complaint of discrimination with the Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center.

    The “EEO Is the Law” notice

The “EEO Is the Law” notice was developed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).  The EEOC’s “EEO Is the Law” notice reads, in part, as follows:

Equal Employment Opportunity is THE LAW

 Private Employers, State and Local Governments, Educational Institutions, Employment Agencies and Labor Organizations

Applicants to and employees of most private employers, state and local governments, educational institutions, employment agencies and labor organizations are protected under Federal law from discrimination on the following bases:

RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, SEX, NATIONAL ORIGIN

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, protects applicants and employees from discrimination in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), or national origin. Religious discrimination includes failing to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices where the accommodation does not impose undue hardship.

DISABILITY

Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, protect qualified individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment. Disability discrimination includes not making reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, barring undue hardship.

AGE

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, as amended, protects applicants and employees 40 years of age or older from discrimination based on age in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment.

SEX (WAGES)

In addition to sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, as amended, prohibits sex discrimination in the payment of wages to women and men performing substantially equal work, in jobs that require equal skill, effort, and responsibility, under similar working conditions, in the same establishment.

GENETICS

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 protects applicants and employees from discrimination based on genetic information in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment. GINA also restricts employers’ acquisition of genetic information and strictly limits disclosure of genetic information. Genetic information includes information about genetic tests of applicants, employees, or their family members; the manifestation of diseases or disorders in family members (family medical history); and requests for or receipt of genetic services by applicants, employees, or their family members.

RETALIATION

All of these Federal laws prohibit covered entities from retaliating against a person who files a charge of discrimination, participates in a discrimination proceeding, or otherwise opposes an unlawful employment practice.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU BELIEVE DISCRIMINATION HAS OCCURRED

There are strict time limits for filing charges of employment discrimination. To preserve the ability of EEOC to act on your behalf and to protect your right to file a private lawsuit, should you ultimately need to, you should contact EEOC promptly when discrimination is suspected: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 1-800-669-4000 (toll-free) or 1-800-669-6820 (toll-free TTY number for individuals with hearing impairments). EEOC field office information is available at www.eeoc.gov or in most telephone directories in the U.S. Government or Federal Government section. Additional information about EEOC, including information about charge filing, is available at www.eeoc.gov.

Employers Holding Federal Contracts or Subcontracts

Applicants to and employees of companies with a Federal government contract or subcontract are protected under Federal law from discrimination on the following bases:

RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, SEX, NATIONAL ORIGIN

Executive Order 11246, as amended, prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and requires affirmative action to ensure equality of opportunity in all aspects of employment.

INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, protects qualified individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment. Disability discrimination includes not making reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, barring undue hardship. Section 503 also requires that Federal contractors take affirmative action to employ and advance in employment qualified individuals with disabilities at all levels of employment, including the executive level.

DISABLED, RECENTLY SEPARATED, OTHER PROTECTED, AND ARMED FORCES SERVICE MEDAL VETERANS

The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, as amended, 38 U.S.C. 4212, prohibits job discrimination and requires affirmative action to employ and advance in employment disabled veterans, recently separated veterans (within three years of discharge or release from active duty), other protected veterans (veterans who served during a war or in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge has been authorized), and Armed Forces service medal veterans (veterans who, while on active duty, participated in a U.S. military operation for which an Armed Forces service medal was awarded).

RETALIATION

Retaliation is prohibited against a person who files a complaint of discrimination, participates in an OFCCP proceeding, or otherwise opposes discrimination under these Federal laws.

Any person who believes a contractor has violated its nondiscrimination or affirmative action obligations under the authorities above should contact immediately:

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20210, 1-800-397-6251 (toll-free) or (202) 693-1337 (TTY). OFCCP may also be contacted by e-mail at OFCCP-Public@dol.gov, or by calling an OFCCP regional or district office, listed in most telephone directories under U.S. Government, Department of Labor.

√    Comparing the notices

Comparing the “EO Is the Law” notice with the “EEO is THE LAW” notice, we see both notices set forth nondiscrimination requirements, and inform us regarding where to file a discrimination complaint.  However, the “EEO is THE LAW” notice is limited to addressing nondiscrimination with regard to employment practices, whereas the “EO Is the Law” notice is much broader—it applies to employment practices of WIOA-Title I funded recipients and sub-recipients as well as the entire system of delivering WIOA-Title I funded aid, training, benefits, and services to the public.

Moreover, while some “bases” of prohibited discrimination are the same in the two notices (race, color, national origin, religion, disability, gender), there also are important differences.  For example, the WIOA-related “EO Is the Law” notice also prohibits discrimination on the bases of citizenship, WIOA participant status, and political affiliation.  And, the “EEO is THE LAW” notice prohibits discrimination in employment practices on the basis of genetics.

Additionally, although both notices prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, the “EEO is THE LAW” nondiscrimination provisions apply to persons over 40 years of age in the workplace.  But, the age-based nondiscrimination provisions of the “EO Is the Law” notice prohibit discrimination on the basis of any age in WIOA-Title I-related employment practices as well as in the delivery of WIOA-Title I funded programs and activities.

Finally, both notices provide instructions for filing discrimination complaints, but we see the complaints are filed at different locations.  The WIOA-related “EO Is the Law” notice provides that complaints may be filed within 180 days of the date of the adverse action with:

√  the recipient’s Equal Opportunity Officer (or the person whom the recipient has designated for this purpose); or

√ the Director, Civil Rights Center (CRC), U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Avenue NW, Room N-4123, Washington, DC 20210.

This is compared to the discrimination complaint process set forth in the “EEO is THE LAW” notice, which provides:

There are strict time limits for filing charges of employment discrimination. To preserve the ability of EEOC to act on your behalf and to protect your right to file a private lawsuit, should you ultimately need to, you should contact EEOC promptly when discrimination is suspected: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 1-800-669-4000 (toll-free) or 1-800-669-6820 (toll-free TTY number for individuals with hearing impairments). EEOC field office information is available at www.eeoc.gov or in most telephone directories in the U.S. Government or Federal Government section. Additional information about EEOC, including information about charge filing, is available at www.eeoc.gov.

√    Conclusion

If you operate WIOA-Title I financially assisted programs and activities, you must prominently display, and provide initial and ongoing notice of, the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Equal Opportunity Is The Law” notice at your agency, American Job Network Centers (also known as “One Stops”), Local Workforce Investment Board offices, Unemployment Insurance call centers, Job Corps Centers, operator offices, service provider locations, and the like.  You cannot rely solely on the “EEO is THE LAW” notice to meet this requirement.  And, this notice must be provided to each participant of your WIOA-Title I financially assisted programs and activities, and this must be documented in each participant’s file (usually this is accomplished by placing a copy of the notice with the participant’s signature on it in the participant’s file).

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.”

Ms. Foster has a “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service. She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

Discrimination Complaint Investigations: Focus on Controlling the Process, Not the Parties by Seena Foster

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

When a discrimination complaint is filed in a government program, or in the workplace, there are concerns regarding confidentiality, retaliation, and the threat of harm to public or professional reputations. The advent of electronic mail and a myriad of social media sites compound the complexity of these concerns. The bottom line is, you will not be able to control the actions of the parties to a discrimination complaint but, as an investigator, you can control your own actions as well as the investigative process. In this paper, we’ll discuss when and to whom you give notice of a discrimination complaint and how to maintain control over the investigative process.

For federally funded programs or activities, a discrimination complaint is filed by a Charging Party alleging denial of benefits, services, aid, or training by the Respondent on a prohibited basis (i.e. race, color, national origin, age, gender, disability, and so on). The Charging Party (CP) is a beneficiary, or potential beneficiary, of a federally funded program. The Respondents are the (1) agency or other entity operating the program, and (2) the employee acting on behalf of the agency or entity.

One example of discrimination in a government program is where a college professor gives one of his students a higher grade in exchange for sex. The student (CP) files a quid pro quo sexual harassment complaint against the college and its professor (Respondents). Another example is where the unemployment insurance counselor at a one stop career center refuses to assist persons with hearing impairments because it takes too much time. Here, the persons with hearing impairments (CPs) file a disability-based discrimination complaint against the unemployment insurance counselor and the one stop career center (Respondents).

An example of a workplace discrimination complaint is where a supervisor gives a black subordinate an adverse performance appraisal. The employee (Complainant) would file a color-based discrimination complaint against the supervisor (Respondent).

√ Determining jurisdiction

The first step for any investigator when s/he receives a discrimination complaint is determining jurisdiction. Is there authority to investigate a particular complaint? Here, the investigator is looking at things such as timeliness, apparent merit, protected class characteristics, and so on.

At this initial stage, the investigator is not determining whether the allegations are true; rather, s/he is merely figuring out whether the complaint meets certain basic jurisdictional requirements. Most often, this stage of the investigation involves communicating only with the CP or Complainant. Because the complaint has not officially been accepted for investigation, there is no need to notify the named Respondents of the complaint at this time.

Moreover, generally, if the investigator finds that s/he is without jurisdiction to investigate a complaint (i.e. it is untimely, lacks apparent merit, and the like), then written notice of that fact must be provided to the CP or Complainant, but it may not be necessary to provide the named Respondents with such notice. Check with the civil rights office of your federal funding agency for requirements applicable to you.

√ Accepting the complaint

If the investigator concludes that s/he has jurisdiction over the complaint and will accept it for investigation, then all parties to the complaint must receive notice of what is being investigated and must have an opportunity to respond to the notice.

For a complaint involving a federally funded program or activity, this notice generally is provided to the CP, and the named Respondents. Some federal funding agencies also may request notice that you’ve accepted a complaint. In a workplace complaint, the Complainant is provided notice as well as the Respondent, who may be a supervisor, manager, co-worker, contractor, or the like.

And, in complaints involving harassment or hostile environment, higher-ranking officials in the chain of command may need to be served with the notice.

√ Why do both parties need to know?

Providing notice to both parties that you have accepted a discrimination complaint for investigation is required because each party needs to be allowed to present evidence. Most discrimination complaints arise under the disparate treatment legal theory. Here, the CP or Complainant must demonstrate a prima facie case that discrimination occurred by a preponderance of the evidence; that is, it is more likely than not that prohibited discrimination occurred. Then the burden shifts to the Respondents to present legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for their conduct. Finally, the burden shifts back to the CP or Complainant to demonstrate that the Respondents proffered reasons are pretextual.

Therefore, both sides of the dispute will need to participate in the investigative process.

√ The conduct of the investigation

At this point, both sides of the dispute are aware of the investigation. You will not have control over whether a party or witness talks, e-mails, or tweets about the complaint. And, an investigator is cautioned against seeking to impose “gag” orders on anyone involved. Nor should an investigator threaten disciplinary action or other sanctions against any party or witness discussing the matter. These are not useful tactics and they may constitute a violation of certain federal laws. Indeed, certain private employers must be mindful of the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board in Banner Health System and Navarro, 358 NLRB 93 (July 30, 2012) (an employer may not apply a rule prohibiting employees from discussing ongoing investigations of employee insubordination as this violates the National Labor Relations Act).

Some investigators may want to “expedite” matters by conducting an “informal” investigation without written notice to either party. This is problematic. In order for your investigation to be fair to both parties, the parties must know the issue that you are looking into for purposes of the complaint, and they must have an opportunity to be heard on the issue.

Some investigators in educational programs and activities may be hesitant to issue written notices out of concern that students may disseminate the notices via e-mail, Facebook, or the like, thus hindering the ability to conduct a fair investigation.

In such situations, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, the Respondent educational institution will (or should) have privacy and confidentiality policies related to these discrimination complaint investigations, and these policies should be widely-published. Although the policies bind the investigator and his or her organizations in respecting the privacy of parties and confidentiality of the investigative process, it may be useful to provide a copy of these policies to the CP or Complainant and the alleged wrongdoer(s). Here, you do not seek to control the actions of the parties (as this a losing battle); rather, you seek to increase their awareness of the importance of confidentiality and privacy in these investigations.

Although “gag” orders and disciplinary threats are not recommended ways to curb open discussions of an ongoing discrimination investigation, the following points can be made verbally and in writing to the parties:

● Acceptance of the complaint of discrimination does not mean that discrimination has occurred. It only means that there is authority to start the investigation of the complaint (i.e. the complaint was timely filed and so on). At this point, information will be gathered from both sides to determine whether each of the allegations in the complaint is proven or not proven. If the allegations are not proven, then a written finding that discrimination is not proven will be issued. If the allegations are proven by a preponderance of the evidence, then a written finding of discrimination will issue.

When issuing a written notice accepting a discrimination complaint for investigation, the investigator may decide to include the following language at the beginning of the written notice:

THIS NOTICE DOES NOT CONSTITUTE A FINDING THAT ANY DISCRIMINATION HAS OCCURRED. THE SOLE PURPOSE OF THIS NOTICE IS TO INFORM THE PARTIES THAT I HAVE RECEIVED A DISCRIMINATION COMPLAINT AND I HAVE AUTHORITY TO INVESTIGATE IT.

An investigator can reinforce his or her expectations that the parties should focus their energies on aiding with the investigation. The investigator, in turn, will focus on getting to the bottom of the allegations made to determine whether prohibited discrimination took place.

● An investigator should make clear that the conduct of the CP or Complainant and the Respondents during the investigation will be considered in determining whether the investigative process is being improperly utilized to harass a party, retaliate against a party, or the like. And, any written communications of the parties at the time of the incident at issue, including e-mail exchanges and postings on social media may be gathered and analyzed to determine the motives of the parties.

● The parties should be reminded that the purpose of the investigative process is not to threaten, intimidate, retaliate against, or humiliate either party. They should understand that it is the investigator’s job to develop the evidence and determine what happened.

● The one person whose conduct can be controlled in this entire process is that of the investigator. To maintain credibility, an investigator must be discrete, non-judgmental with both parties, and confidential in his or her words (written and verbal) and actions. An investigator should not discuss the investigation with co-workers, friends, or family. There should be no interference from outside sources seeking to dictate the course and/or outcome of the investigation. And, the investigator must have authority to report directly to the highest-ranking official of the agency, company, or organization. The parties have come to the investigator because they need to have a problem solved. The investigator should be part of the solution to the problem as opposed to being part of its continuation or escalation.

● It is important for an investigator to be organized and to resolve the complaint as soon as practicable. Whether the discrimination complaint stems from the operation of a government program or conduct in the workplace, efforts at counseling and/or mediation early in the process can be very helpful.

● Finally, complaints of harassment and hostile environment present some additional challenges for the investigator. Prior to the filing of any such complaint, leadership at an agency, company, educational institution, or other organization must make sure it has specific written steps in place for separating the individuals involved. Although an investigator must gather evidence and statements to determine whether the allegations of harassment and hostile environment are proven by a preponderance of the evidence, steps must be taken in the interim to provide relief and protection for the CP or Complainant from the alleged wrongdoer(s). And, for such complaints arising in the workplace, the EEOC encourages the investigator to keep the identity of the Complainant, and the information collected, as confidential as possible. There is a reality that the investigator needs to be able to collect evidence and question witnesses about the event at issue. The idea, however, is that the investigator should exercise diligence and caution, and should refrain from openly discussing the investigation in the workplace.

√ The final determination

Once the investigation is completed, a written determination of findings and conclusions must be sent to the parties. In complaints involving federally funded programs and activities, the federal funding agency also may require that you submit a copy to it. And, some federal funding agencies require that the written determination be sent to the state Governor’s office. The determination should provide the parties with a notice of any appeal rights available to them should they wish to challenge the determination. Similarly, final agency actions issued after investigation of workplace disputes must comply with EEOC requirements. For a description of those requirements, go to www.eeoc.gov.

Again, the investigator should not offer side comments or other statements to anyone. The determination will speak for itself and it should be only in the hands of the persons who are required to be notified. Otherwise, the investigative file containing notes, evidence, witness statements, notices, and determinations must be kept confidential, and secured in a location with limited (“need to know”) access.

√ About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, K-12 public school systems, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her Web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through on-site training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

Office of Disability Employment Policy Newsletter (March 28, 2014)

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

In Pursuit of Inclusive Technology — Assistant Secretary Martinez at CSUN Conference

Hundreds of attendees at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference sponsored annually by California State University of Northridge (CSUN) gathered last week to explore the vital importance of ensuring technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Kathy Martinez delivered the event’s keynote address on March 20, during which she talked about the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts to promote the development and adoption of accessible workplace technology by America’s employers, as well as the government’s use of new technologies to advance collaborative policymaking and outreach. “While I’ve certainly experienced the frustration of workplace technology that is not accessible,” said Martinez, “I’ve also seen the promise of universally designed technology that can empower all of us to excel and fully participate — at work, and in life.”

National Online Conversation for Change on Social Media Accessibility Open through April 4

Through April 4, members of the public are invited to participate in a national online dialogue, “Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion in Social Media — The User Experience,” to examine the accessibility barriers of social media tools faced by individuals with disabilities, including job seekers and workers. Co-hosted by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the National Council on Disability (NCD), this event aims to explore the value of social media in the lives of people with disabilities, particularly around work, and to identify accessibility issues and creative approaches to making social media tools more accessible and usable for everyone. The information gathered from this dialogue will then help NCD and ODEP further collaborate with the social media industry to implement solutions and improve the accessibility of these online tools. The dialogue is the first in a series of three social media accessibility online events to take place over the next three months.

Online Dialogue to Help Shape the 2014 NDEAM Theme Closes March 31

The national online dialogue to share ideas for this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) theme is coming to a close on March 31. There is still time to submit your suggestions for a theme that reminds everyone of the valuable skills and talents that people with disabilities bring to the workplace. Don’t miss your chance to contribute to the conversation!

WRP.jobs Online Job Board Open to Private Sector Employers

Private sector employers can now use WRP.jobs, a free online job board, to find pre-screened college students and recent graduates with disabilities looking for internships and permanent positions through the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP). WRP candidates represent all majors and include graduate and law students, as well as veterans. The WRP is a government-wide program co-sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Department of Labor to increase employment of people with disabilities in the federal workforce. Through WRP.jobs, interested non-federal employers can post permanent and temporary positions and WRP students can search and apply for these positions using employers’ standard application processes. WRP.jobs is a pilot project developed through a collaboration between the Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN), the organization that administers the WRP program for non-federal employers, and DirectEmployers, a non-profit consortium of global employers.

OFCCP Launches New Outreach and Recruitment Database for Contractors

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) recently launched a database to help contractors find qualified workers with disabilities and veterans, and to assist contractors with establishing relationships with national organizations and local community groups that have access to these workers. Contractors, as well as others, can visit OFCCP’s Disability and Veterans Community Resources Directory on the OFCCP website. This new resource supplements the agency’s existing Employment Resources Referral Directory.

LEAD Center Releases March Policy Update — Employment, Health Care and Disability

The March 2014 issue of the LEAD Center’s Policy Update — Employment, Health Care and Disability is now available. This monthly update, created in collaboration with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, provides policymakers, disability service professionals, individuals with disabilities and their families with information about relevant policy developments regarding Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and related topics, with a focus on improving employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. The March edition features stories on the President’s proposed 2015 budget, a recent webinar series hosted by ODEP, CMS and the LEAD Center, states considering private health coverage to low-income adults, a study on the benefits of Medicaid expansion for uninsured people with mental illness and Pennsylvania’s proposed Medicaid expansion.

Fall White House Internship Program — Applications Due April 13

The White House Internship Program provides a unique opportunity to gain valuable professional experience and build leadership skills. This hands-on program is designed to mentor and cultivate today’s young leaders, strengthen their understanding of the Executive Office and prepare them for future public service opportunities. The White House Internship Program’s mission is to make the “People’s House” accessible to future leaders from around the nation. The application for the Fall 2014 White House Internship Program is now open and the deadline is April 13, 2014.

Immigration-Related Unfair Labor Practices: New Anti-Discrimination Posters in Multiple Languages from the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

OSC is pleased to announce that its anti-discrimination poster is now available in additional languages. OSC has published translations of its poster in Arabic, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. These translations are available on OSC’s website located on the Worker Information page at: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/osc/htm/worker.php and the Employer Information page at: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/osc/htm/employer.php.

OFCCP Posts VEVRAA Benchmark Database and User Instructions

Friday, March 21st, 2014

OFCCP posted the Benchmark Database required by the new regulations implementing the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA). Federal contractors use the VEVRAA Benchmark Database when establishing a hiring benchmark for protected veterans as required by 41 CFR 60-300.45 of the new regulations. The database includes the annual national percentage of veterans in the civilian labor force for contractors that choose to use this number as their benchmark. It also includes data on the percentage of veterans in the labor force in each State and the number of veterans who participate in each State’s employment service, for use by those contractors choosing to develop an individualized benchmark.

To help contractors use this database, OFCCP provides detailed user instructions and examples illustrating how a contractor could use the database to set an individualized VEVRAA benchmark.

You can access the VEVRAA Benchmark Database through OFCCP’s Web site at http://www.dol-esa.gov/errd/VEVRAA.jsp.

OFCCP Launches a New Outreach and Recruitment Database for Contractors

Friday, March 21st, 2014

On March 13, 2014, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) launched a new database to help contractors find qualified workers with disabilities and veterans, and to assist contractors with establishing relationships with national organizations and local community groups that have access to these workers.

Contractors, as well as others, can visit OFCCP’s Disability and Veterans Community Resources Directory on the OFCCP Web site at http://www.dol-esa.gov/errd/resources.html. This new resource supplements the agency’s existing Employment Resources Referral Directory (ERRD).

Office of Disability Employment Policy Newsletter (March 14, 2014)

Friday, March 14th, 2014

For more information on any of these articles, go to www.dol.gov/odep.

Planning for a Year of Disability Employment Action – Assistant Secretary Martinez’s Blog

In a blog that looks ahead to the FY 2015 budget year, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Kathy Martinez outlines some of the priorities for the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Among them are a focus on community colleges in the transition of youth with disabilities to the workplace, a commitment to providing technical assistance to employers regarding the new Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act regulations, and a continued collaboration with the Employment and Training Administration on the Disability Employment Initiative.

Join the National Online Conversation for Change on Social Media Accessibility – March 17 – April 4

Members of the public are invited to participate in a national online dialogue, “Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion in Social Media – The User Experience,” to examine the accessibility barriers of social media tools faced by individuals with disabilities, including job seekers and workers. Co-hosted by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the National Council on Disability (NCD), this event aims to explore the value of social media in the lives of people with disabilities, particularly around work, and to identify accessibility issues and creative approaches to making social media tools more accessible and usable for everyone. The information gathered from this dialogue will then help NCD and ODEP further collaborate with the social media industry to implement solutions and improve the accessibility of these online tools. The dialogue, to be held March 17 to April 4, 2014, will be the first in a series of three social media accessibility online events to take place over the next three months.

ODEP Info-Comic Illustrates the Benefits of Individualized Learning Plans for Youth

An Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) is a set of activities that helps youth take charge of their future. It does this by connecting what youth do in high school with college, job and career goals. ODEP and its research partners have found that ILPs positively impact all youth’s self-determination, leadership abilities, and awareness of career opportunities. As an example of the process, ODEP created an info-comic in which high school senior Shelly learns how to take charge of her future by using an ILP. ODEP also has a “Kickstart Your ILP” toolkit available on its website.

HUD Announces $120 Million for Housing for People with Disabilities

To help prevent thousands of people with disabilities from experiencing homelessness or unnecessary institutionalization, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced about $120 million in funding for state housing agencies to provide long-term rental assistance. Developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Section 811 Project Rental Assistance (PRA) enables persons with disabilities who earn less than 30 percent of their area’s median income to live in integrated mainstream settings. The program reinforces the guiding principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the landmark 1999 Supreme Court ruling in Olmstead v. L.C., which require state and local governments to provide services in the most integrated settings appropriate to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. Application deadline is May 5, 2014.

Maintaining Employment through Economic Advancement Strategies – LEAD Center Webinar – March 26, 3:00-4:30 PM EDT

This webinar, as part of LEAD Center’s Employment mini-series, will provide information on strategies for enhancing employment stability and improving time on the job through the use of economic advancement strategies. Participants will learn how to integrate these strategies into their return to work services and hear stories about on the ground implementation. The webinar will be held March 26, 3:00-4:30 PM EDT. All LEAD Center webinars are captioned and presentation materials are sent to participants in advance of the webinar. For any other reasonable accommodation requests, please contact Brittany Taylor at btaylor@ndi-inc.org.

Disability Status Report Webinar – April 1, 1:00-2:00 PM EDT

Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute (EDI) will host a free online webinar on April 1 from 1:00-2:00 p.m. EDT to present the findings of the 2012 Disability Status Report. This presentation will explore the Census Bureau’s December 2013 release of data from the 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) related to disability and employment, education, poverty, household income and labor earnings.
Cornell University researchers will present the latest information and issues associated with disability statistics and the circumstances that people with disabilities face. The webinar will be captioned.

EEOC’s Fact Sheet on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities (March 6, 2014)

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

This fact sheet provides basic information about how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices. A full-length question-and-answer guide is available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_religious_garb_grooming.cfm.

In most instances, employers covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religious dress and grooming practices. Examples of religious dress and grooming practices may include: wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Christian cross, a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, a Sikh kirpan (symbolic miniature sword)); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of wearing modest clothing, and of not wearing pants or short skirts); or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks)).

Title VII prohibits disparate treatment based on religious belief or practice, or lack thereof. With the exception of employers that are religious organizations as defined under Title VII, an employer must not exclude someone from a job based on discriminatory religious preferences, whether its own or those of customers, clients, or co-workers. Title VII also prohibits discrimination against people because they have no religious beliefs. Customer preference is not a defense to a claim of discrimination.

Title VII also prohibits workplace or job segregation based on religion (including religious garb and grooming practices), such as assigning an employee to a non-customer contact position because of actual or assumed customer preference.

Title VII requires an employer, once on notice that a religious accommodation is needed for sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, to make an exception to dress and grooming requirements or preferences, unless it would pose an undue hardship.

Requiring an employee’s religious garb, marking, or article of faith to be covered is not a reasonable accommodation if that would violate the employee’s religious beliefs.

An employer may bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on workplace safety, security, or health concerns only if the circumstances actually pose an undue hardship on the operation of the business, and not because the employer simply assumes that the accommodation would pose an undue hardship.

When an exception is made as a religious accommodation, the employer may still refuse to allow exceptions sought by other employees for secular reasons.
Neither co-worker disgruntlement nor customer preference constitutes undue hardship.

It is advisable in all instances for employers to make a case-by-case determination of any requested religious exceptions, and to train managers accordingly.

Title VII prohibits retaliation by an employer because an individual has engaged in protected activity under the statute, which includes requesting religious accommodation. Protected activity may also include opposing a practice the employee reasonably believes is made unlawful by one of the employment discrimination statutes, or filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the statute.

Title VII prohibits workplace harassment based on religion, which may occur when an employee is required or coerced to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment, or for example, when an employee is subjected to unwelcome remarks or conduct based on religion.
To locate the EEOC office in your area regarding questions or to file a charge of discrimination within applicable time deadlines, call toll free 1-800-669-4000 or 1-800-669-6820 (TTY) for more information. Federal sector applicants and employees should contact the EEO office of the agency responsible for the alleged discrimination to initiate EEO counseling. For more details, see “How to File a Charge of Employment Discrimination,” http://www.eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm.

In addition to Title VII’s prohibitions on religious, race, color, national origin, and sex discrimination, the EEOC enforces federal statutes that prohibit employment discrimination based on age, disability, or genetic information of applicants or employees. You may contact the EEOC with questions about effective workplace policies that can help prevent discrimination, or with more specialized questions, by calling 1-800-669-4000 (TTY 1-800-669-6820), or sending written inquiries to: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Office of Legal Counsel, 131 M Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20507.

EEOC Issues New Publications on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace Practical Guides Will Assist Employers and Employees (March 6, 2014)

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

This publication by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) answers questions about how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers can take to meet their legal responsibilities in this area.

Examples of religious dress and grooming practices include wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts), or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks)).

In most instances, employers are required by federal law to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices.

1. What is the federal law relating to religious dress and grooming in the workplace?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., as amended (“Title VII”),prohibits employers with at least 15 employees (including private sector, state, and local government employers), as well as employment agencies, unions, and federal government agencies, from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also prohibits retaliation against persons who complain of discrimination or participate in an EEO investigation. With respect to religion, Title VII prohibits among other things:

disparate treatment based on religion in recruitment, hiring, promotion, benefits, training, job duties, termination, or any other aspect of employment (except that “religious organizations” as defined under Title VII are permitted to prefer members of their own religion in deciding whom to employ);
denial of reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious practices, unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer;
workplace or job segregation based on religion;
workplace harassment based on religion;
retaliation for requesting an accommodation (whether or not granted), for filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC, for testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an EEOC investigation or EEO proceeding, or for opposing discrimination.

There may be state or local laws in your jurisdiction that have protections that are parallel to or broader than those in Title VII.

2. Does Title VII apply to all aspects of religious practice or belief?

Yes. Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or may seem illogical or unreasonable to others.

Religious practices may be based on theistic beliefs or non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities. Moreover, an employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if it is not followed by others in the same religious sect, denomination, or congregation, or even if the employee is unaffiliated with a formal religious organization.

The law’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs. For example, an employer that is not a religious organization (as legally defined under Title VII) cannot make employees wear religious garb or articles (such as a cross) if they object on grounds of non-belief.

Because this definition is so broad, whether or not a practice or belief is religious typically is not disputed in Title VII religious discrimination cases.

3. Does the law apply to dress or grooming practices that are religious for an applicant or employee, even if other people engage in the same practice for non-religious reasons?

Yes. Title VII applies to any practice that is motivated by a religious belief, even if other people may engage in the same practice for secular reasons. However, if a dress or grooming practice is a personal preference, for example, where it is worn for fashion rather than for religious reasons, it does not come under Title VII’s religion protections.

4. What if an employer questions whether the applicant’s or employee’s asserted religious practice is sincerely held?

Title VII’s accommodation requirement only applies to religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.” However, just because an individual’s religious practices may deviate from commonly-followed tenets of the religion, the employer should not automatically assume that his or her religious observance is not sincere. Moreover, an individual’s religious beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time, yet may nevertheless be sincerely held. Therefore, like the “religious” nature of a belief or practice, the “sincerity” of an employee’s stated religious belief is usually not in dispute in religious discrimination cases. However, if an employer has a legitimate reason for questioning the sincerity or even the religious nature of a particular belief or practice for which accommodation has been requested, it may ask an applicant or employee for information reasonably needed to evaluate the request.

EXAMPLE 1
New Observance

Eli has been working at the Burger Hut for two years. While in the past he has always worn his hair short, he has recently let it grow longer. When his manager advises him that the company has a policy requiring male employees to wear their hair short, Eli explains that he is a newly practicing Nazirite and now adheres to religious beliefs that include not cutting his hair. Eli’s observance can be sincerely held even though it is recently adopted.

EXAMPLE 2
Observance That Only Occurs at Certain Times or Irregularly

Afizah is a Muslim woman who has been employed as a bank teller at the ABC Savings & Loan for six months. The bank has a dress code prohibiting tellers from wearing any head coverings. Although Afizah has not previously worn a religious headscarf to work at the bank, her personal religious practice has been to do so during Ramadan, the month of fasting that falls during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The fact that Afizah adheres to the practice only at certain times of the year does not mean that her belief is insincere.

5. Can an employer exclude someone from a position because of discriminatory customer preference?

No. If an employer takes an action based on the discriminatory religious preferences of others, including customers, clients, or co-workers, the employer is unlawfully discriminating in employment based on religion. Customer preference is not a defense to a claim of discrimination.

EXAMPLE 3
Employment Decision Based on Customer Preference

Adarsh, who wears a turban as part of his Sikh religion, is hired to work at the counter in a coffee shop. A few weeks after Adarsh begins working, the manager notices that the work crew from the construction site near the shop no longer comes in for coffee in the mornings. When the manager makes inquiries, the crew complains that Adarsh, whom they mistakenly believe is Muslim, makes them uncomfortable in light of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The manager tells Adarsh that he will be terminated because the coffee shop is losing the construction crew’s business. The manager has subjected Adarsh to unlawful religious discrimination by taking an adverse action based on customer preference not to have a cashier of Adarsh’s perceived religion. Adarsh’s termination based on customer preference would violate Title VII regardless of whether he was correctly or incorrectly perceived as Muslim, Sikh, or any other religion.

Employers may be able to prevent this type of religious discrimination from occurring by taking steps such as training managers to rely on specific experience, qualifications, and other objective, non-discriminatory factors when making employment decisions. Employers should also communicate clearly to managers that customer preference about religious beliefs and practices is not a lawful basis for employment decisions.

6. May an employer automatically refuse to accommodate an applicant’s or employee’s religious garb or grooming practice if it would violate the employer’s policy or preference regarding how employees should look?

No. Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, when an employer’s dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Fact patterns illustrating whether or not an employer is aware of the need for accommodation appear below at examples 4-7.

For purposes of religious accommodation, undue hardship is defined by courts as a “more than de minimis” cost or burden on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, if a religious accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship. This is a lower standard than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) undue hardship defense to disability accommodation.

When an exception is made as a religious accommodation, the employer may nevertheless retain its usual dress and grooming expectations for other employees, even if they want an exception for secular reasons. Co-workers’ disgruntlement or jealousy about the religious accommodation is not considered undue hardship, nor is customer preference.

EXAMPLE 4
Exception to Uniform Policy as a Religious Accommodation

Based on her religious beliefs, Ruth adheres to modest dress. She is hired as a front desk attendant at a sports club, where her duties consist of checking members’ identification badges as they enter the facility. The club manager advises Ruth that the club has a dress code requiring all employees to wear white tennis shorts and a polo shirt with the facility logo. Ruth requests permission as a religious accommodation to wear a long white skirt with the required shirt, instead of wearing shorts. The club grants her request, because Ruth’s sincerely held religious belief conflicts with the workplace dress code, and accommodating her would not pose an undue hardship. If other employees seek exceptions to the dress code for non-religious reasons such as personal preference, the employer is permitted to deny their requests, even though it granted Ruth a religious accommodation.

7. How will an employer know when it must consider making an exception to its dress and grooming policies or preferences to accommodate the religious practices of an applicant or employee?

Typically, the employer will advise the applicant or employee of its dress code or grooming policy, and subsequently the applicant or employee will indicate that an exception is needed for religious reasons. Applicants and employees will not know to ask for an accommodation until the employer makes them aware of a workplace requirement that conflicts with their religious practice. The applicant or employee need not use any “magic words” to make the request, such as “accommodation” or “Title VII.” If the employer reasonably needs more information, however, the employer and the employee should discuss the request. In some instances, even absent a request, it will be obvious that the practice is religious and conflicts with a work policy, and therefore that accommodation is needed.

EXAMPLE 5
Employer Knowledge Insufficient

James’s employer requires all of its employees to be clean-shaven. James is a newly hired employee, and was hired based on an online application and a telephone interview. When he arrives the first day with an unshorn beard, his supervisor informs him that he must comply with the “clean-shaven” policy or be terminated. James refuses to comply, but fails to inform his supervisor that he wears his beard for religious reasons. James should have explained to his supervisor that he wears the beard pursuant to a religious observance. The employer did not have to consider accommodation because it did not know that James wore his beard for religious reasons.

EXAMPLE 6
Employer Knowledge Sufficient

Same facts as above but, instead, when James’s supervisor informs him that he must comply with the “clean-shaven” policy or be terminated, James explains that he wears the beard for religious reasons, as he is a Messianic Christian. This is sufficient to request accommodation. The employer is permitted to obtain the limited additional information needed to determine whether James’s beard is worn due to a sincerely held religious practice and, if so, must accommodate by making an exception to its “clean-shaven” policy unless doing so would be an undue hardship.

EXAMPLE 7
Employer Believes Practice Is Religious and Conflicts with Work Policy

Aatma, an applicant for a rental car sales position who is an observant Sikh, wears a chunni (religious headscarf) to her job interview. The interviewer does not advise her that there is a dress code prohibiting head coverings, and Aatma does not ask whether she would be permitted to wear the headscarf if she were hired. There is evidence that the manager believes that the headscarf is a religious garment, presumed it would be worn at work, and refused to hire her because the company requires sales agents to wear a uniform with no additions or exceptions. This refusal to hire violates Title VII, even though Aatma did not make a request for accommodation at the interview, because the employer believed her practice was religious and that she would need accommodation, and did not hire her for that reason. Moreover, if Aatma were hired but then instructed to remove the headscarf, she could at that time request religious accommodation.

8. May an employer assign an employee to a non-customer contact position because of customer preference?

No. Assigning applicants or employees to a non-customer contact position because of actual or feared customer preference violates Title VII’s prohibition on limiting, segregating, or classifying employees based on religion. Even if the employer is following its uniformly applied employee policy or practice, it is not permitted to segregate an employee due to fear that customers will have a biased response to religious garb or grooming. The law requires the employer to make an exception to its policy or practice as a religious accommodation, because customer preference is not undue hardship.

EXAMPLE 8
Assigning Employee to “Back Room” Because of Religious Garb

Nasreen, a Muslim applicant for an airport ticket counter position, wears a headscarf, or hijab, pursuant to her religious beliefs. Although Nasreen is qualified, the manager fears that customers may think an airport employee who is identifiably Muslim is sympathetic to terrorist hijackers. The manager, therefore, offers her a position in the airline’s call center where she will only interact with customers by phone. This is religious segregation and violates Title VII.

As a best practice, managers and employees should be trained that the law may require making a religious exception to an employer’s otherwise uniformly applied dress or grooming rules, practices, or preferences. They should also be trained not to engage in stereotyping about work qualifications or availability based on religious dress and grooming practices. Many EEOC settlements of religious accommodation cases provide for the employer to adopt formal religious accommodation procedures to guide management and employees in handling these requests, as well as annual training on this topic.

9. May an employer accommodate an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice by offering to have the employee cover the religious attire or item while at work?

Yes, if the employee’s religious beliefs permit covering the attire or item. However, requiring an employee’s religious garb, marking, or article of faith to be covered is not a reasonable accommodation if that would violate the employee’s religious beliefs.

EXAMPLE 9
Covering Religious Symbol Contrary to Individual’s Religious Beliefs

Edward practices the Kemetic religion, an ancient Egyptian faith, and affiliates himself with a tribe numbering fewer than ten members. He states that he believes in various deities and follows the faith’s concept of Ma’at, a guiding principle regarding truth and order that represents physical and moral balance in the universe. During a religious ceremony he received small tattoos encircling his wrist, written in the Coptic language, which express his servitude to Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun. When his employer asks him to cover the tattoos, he explains that it is a sin to cover them intentionally because doing so would signify a rejection of Ra. Therefore, covering the tattoos is not a reasonable accommodation, and the employer cannot require it absent undue hardship.

10. May an employer deny accommodation of an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on the “image” that it seeks to convey to its customers?

An employer’s reliance on the broad rubric of “image” or marketing strategy to deny a requested religious accommodation may amount to relying on customer preference in violation of Title VII, or otherwise be insufficient to demonstrate that making an exception would cause an undue hardship on the operation of the business.

EXAMPLE 10
“Image”

Jon, a clerical worker who is an observant Jew, wears tzitzit (ritual knotted garment fringes at the four corners of his shirt) and a yarmulke (or skull cap) in conformance with his Jewish beliefs. XYZ Temps places Jon in a long-term assignment with one of its client companies. The client asks XYZ to notify Jon that he must remove his yarmulke and his tzitzit while working at the front desk, or assign another person to Jon’s position. According to the client, Jon’s religious attire presents the “wrong image” and also violates its dress code prohibiting any headgear and requiring “appropriate business attire.” XYZ Temps may not comply with this client request without violating Title VII.

The client also would violate Title VII if it changed Jon’s duties to keep him out of public view, or if it required him not to wear his yarmulke or his tzitzit when interacting with customers. Assigning Jon to a position out of public view is segregation in violation of Title VII. Moreover, because notions about customer preference (real or perceived) do not establish undue hardship, the client must make an exception to its dress code to let Jon wear his religious garb during front desk duty as a religious accommodation. XYZ should strongly advise its client that the EEO laws require allowing Jon to wear this religious garb at work and that, if the client does not withdraw its request, XYZ will place Jon in another assignment at the same rate of pay and decline to assign another worker to the client.

EXAMPLE 11
“Image”

Tahera, an applicant for a retail sales position at a national clothing company that carries current fashions for teens, wears a headscarf in accordance with her Muslim religious beliefs. Based on its marketing strategy, the company requires sales personnel to wear only clothing sold in its stores, and no headgear, so that they will look like the clothing models in the company’s sales catalogues. Although the company believes that Tajera wears a headscarf for religious reasons, the company does not hire her because it does not want to make an exception. While the company may maintain its dress and grooming rule for other sales personnel, it must make an exception for Tahera as a religious accommodation in the absence of employer evidence of undue hardship.

In many jobs for which employers require employees to wear uniforms (e.g., certain food service jobs or service industry jobs), the employee’s beliefs may permit accommodation by, for example, wearing the item in the company uniform color(s). Employers should ensure that front-line managers and supervisors understand that if an employee’s proposed accommodation would pose an undue hardship, the employer should explore alternative accommodations.

11. Do government agencies whose employees work with the public have to make exceptions to uniform policies or otherwise allow religious dress and grooming practices if doing so would not cause an undue hardship?

Yes. Government agency employers, like private employers, must generally allow exceptions to dress and grooming codes as a religious accommodation, although there may be limited situations in which the need for uniformity of appearance is so important that modifying the dress or grooming code would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, it is advisable in all instances for employers to make a case-by-case determination of any needed religious exceptions.

EXAMPLE 12
Public Employee

Elizabeth, a librarian at a public library, wears a cross as part of her Catholic religious beliefs. In addition, after church services she attends on Ash Wednesday each year, Elizabeth arrives at work with a black ash mark on her forehead in the shape of a cross, which she leaves on until it wears off. Her new supervisor directs her not to wear the cross in the future while on duty, and to wash off the ash mark before reporting to work. Because Elizabeth’s duties require her to interact with the public as a government employee, the supervisor fears that her cross and ash mark could be mistaken as government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He cites the need to avoid any appearance of religious favoritism by government employees interacting with the public, and emphasizes that librarians must be viewed as impartial with respect to any information requests from library patrons. However, because the librarian’s cross and ash mark are clearly personal in this situation, they would not cause a perception of government endorsement of religion. Accordingly, accommodating Elizabeth’s religious practice is not an undue hardship under Title VII.

EXAMPLE 13
Public Employee

Gloria, a newly hired municipal bus driver, was terminated when she advised her supervisor during new-employee orientation that due to the tenets of her faith (Apostolic Pentecostal), she needs to wear a skirt rather than the pants required by the transit agency dress code. Absent evidence that the type of skirt Gloria must wear would pose an actual safety hazard, no undue hardship would have been posed by allowing this dress code exception, and Gloria’s termination would violate Title VII.

12. May an employer bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on workplace safety, security, or health concerns?

Yes, but only if the practice actually poses an undue hardship on the operation of the business. The employer should not assume that the accommodation would pose an undue hardship. While safety, security, or health may justify denying accommodation in a given situation, the employer may do so only if the accommodation would actually pose an undue hardship. In many instances, there may be an available accommodation that will permit the employee to adhere to religious practices and will permit the employer to avoid undue hardship.

EXAMPLE 14
Long Hair

David wears long hair pursuant to his Native American religious beliefs. He applies for a job as a server at a restaurant that requires its male employees to wear their hair “short and neat.” When the restaurant manager informs David that if offered the position he will have to cut his hair, David explains that he keeps his hair long based on his religious beliefs and offers to wear it in a ponytail or held up with a clip. The manager refuses this accommodation and denies David the position because he has long hair. Since David could have been accommodated without undue hardship by wearing his hair in a ponytail or held up neatly with a clip, the employer violated Title VII.

EXAMPLE 15
Facial Hair

Prakash, who works for CutX, a surgical instrument manufacturer, does not shave or trim his facial hair because of his Sikh religious observance. When he seeks a promotion to manage the division responsible for sterilizing instruments, his employer tells him that he must shave or trim his beard because it may contaminate the sterile field. All division employees are required to be clean shaven and wear a face mask. When Prakash explains that he does not trim his beard for religious reasons, the employer offers to allow Prakash to wear two face masks instead of trimming his beard. Prakash thinks that wearing two masks is unreasonable and files a Title VII charge. CutX will prevail because it offered a reasonable accommodation that would eliminate Prakash’s religious conflict with the hygiene rule.

EXAMPLE 16
Facial Hair

Raj, a Sikh, interviews for an office job. At the end of the interview, he receives a job offer but is told he will have to shave his beard because all office staff are required to be “clean shaven” to promote discipline. Raj advises the hiring manager that he wears his beard unshorn because of his Sikh religious practice. Since no undue hardship is posed by allowing Raj to wear his beard, the employer must make an exception as an accommodation.

EXAMPLE 17
Clothing Requirements Near Machinery

Mirna alleges she was terminated from her job in a factory because of her religion (Pentecostal) after she told her supervisor that her faith prohibits her from wearing pants as required by the company’s new dress code. Mirna requested as an accommodation to be permitted to continue wearing a long but close-fitting skirt. Her manager replies that the dress code is essential to safe and efficient operations on the factory floor, but there is no evidence regarding operation of the machinery at issue to show that close-fitting clothing like that worn by Mirna poses a safety risk. Because the evidence does not establish that wearing pants is truly necessary for safety, the accommodation requested by Mirna does not pose an undue hardship.

EXAMPLE 18
Head Coverings That Pose Security Concerns

A private company contracts to provide guards, administrative and medical personnel, and other staff for state and local correctional facilities. The company adopts a new, inflexible policy barring any headgear, including religious head coverings, in all areas of the facility, citing security concerns about the potential for smuggling contraband, interfering with identification, or use of the headgear as a weapon. To comply with Title VII, the employer should consider requests to wear religious headgear on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the identified risks actually exist in that situation and pose an undue hardship. Relevant facts may include the individual’s job, the particular garb at issue, and the available accommodations. For example, if an individual’s religious headgear is or can be worn in a manner that does not inhibit visual identification of the employee, and if temporary removal may be accomplished for security screens and to address smuggling concerns without undue hardship, the individual can be accommodated.

EXAMPLE 19
Kirpan

Harvinder, a Sikh who works in a hospital, wears a small (4-inch), dull, and sheathed kirpan (symbolic miniature sword) strapped and hidden underneath her clothing, as a symbol of her religious commitment to defend truth and moral values. When Harvinder’s supervisor, Bill, learned about her kirpan from a co-worker, he instructed Harvinder not to wear it at work because it violated the hospital policy against weapons in the workplace. Harvinder explained to Bill that her faith requires her to wear a kirpan in order to comply with the Sikh code of conduct, and gave him literature explaining that the kirpan is a religious artifact, not a weapon. She also showed him the kirpan, allowing him to see that it was no sharper than the butter knives found in the hospital cafeteria. Nevertheless, Bill told her that her employment at the hospital would be terminated if she continued to wear the kirpan at work. Absent any evidence that allowing Harvinder to wear the kirpan would pose an undue hardship in the factual circumstances of this case, the hospital is liable for denial of accommodation.

13. Are applicants and employees who request religious accommodation protected from retaliation?

Yes. Title VII prohibits retaliation by an employer because an individual has engaged in protected activity under the statute, which includes requesting religious accommodation. Protected activity may also include opposing a practice the employee reasonably believes is made unlawful by one of the employment discrimination statutes, or filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the statute.

EXAMPLE 20
Retaliation for Requesting Accommodation

Salma, a retail employee, requests that she be permitted to wear her religious headscarf as an exception to her store’s new uniform policy. Joe, the store manager, refuses. Salma contacts the human resources department at the corporate headquarters. Despite Joe’s objections, the human resources department instructs him that in the circumstances there is no undue hardship and that he must grant the request. Motivated by reprisal, Joe shortly thereafter gives Salma an unjustified poor performance rating and denies her request to attend training that he approves for her co-workers. This violates Title VII.

14. What constitutes religious harassment under Title VII, and what obligation does an employer have to stop it?

Religious harassment under Title VII may occur when an employee is required or coerced to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment. Religious harassment may also occur when an employee is subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct based on religion. Harassment may include offensive remarks about a person’s religious beliefs or practices, or verbal or physical mistreatment that is motivated by the victim’s religious beliefs or practices. Although the law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, such conduct rises to the level of illegal harassment when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment action (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or even a third party who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

An employer is liable for harassment by co-workers and third parties where it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action. An employer is always liable for harassment by a supervisor if it results in a tangible employment action, such as the harassment victim being fired or demoted.[18] Even if the supervisor’s harassment does not result in a tangible employment action, the employer will still be liable unless it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior (such as having an effective complaint procedure) and the harassed employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities to prevent or correct it (such as failing to use the complaint procedure).

EXAMPLE 21
Co-Worker Harassment

XYZ Motors, a large used car business, has several employees who are observant Sikhs or Muslims and wear religious head coverings. A manager becomes aware that an employee named Bill regularly calls these co-workers names like “diaper head,” “bag head,” and “the local terrorists,” and that he has intentionally embarrassed them in front of customers by claiming that they are incompetent. Managers and supervisors who learn about objectionable workplace conduct based on religion or national origin are responsible for taking steps to stop the conduct by anyone under their control.

Workplace harassment and its costs are often preventable. Clear and effective policies prohibiting ethnic and religious slurs and related offensive conduct are essential. Confidential complaint mechanisms for promptly reporting harassment are critical, and these policies should encourage both victims and witnesses to come forward. When harassment is reported, the focus should be on action to end the harassment and correct its effects on the complaining employee. Employers should have a well-publicized and consistently applied anti-harassment policy that clearly explains what is prohibited, provides multiple avenues for complaints to management, and ensures prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations and appropriate corrective action.

The policy should also assure complainants that they are protected against retaliation.

Employees who are harassed based on religious belief or practice should report the harassment to their supervisor or other appropriate company official in accordance with the procedures established in the company’s anti-harassment policy.

Once an employer is on notice of potential religious harassment, the employer should take steps to stop the conduct. To prevent conflicts from escalating to the level of a Title VII violation, employers should immediately intervene when they become aware of abusive or insulting conduct, even absent a complaint.

15. What should an applicant or employee do if he believes he has experienced religious discrimination?

Employees or job applicants should attempt to address concerns with management. They should keep records documenting what they experienced or witnessed and any complaints they have made about the discrimination, as well as witness names, telephone numbers, and addresses. If the matter is not resolved, private sector and state and local government applicants and employees may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

To locate the EEOC office in your area regarding questions or to file a charge of discrimination within applicable time deadlines, call toll free 1-800-669-4000 or 1-800-669-6820 (TTY) for more information.

Federal sector applicants and employees should contact the EEO office of the agency responsible for the alleged discrimination to initiate EEO counseling. For more details, see “How to File a Charge of Employment Discrimination,” http://www.eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm.

16. Where can employers and employees obtain more information?

In addition to Title VII’s prohibitions on religious, race, color, national origin, and sex discrimination, the EEOC enforces federal statutes that prohibit employment discrimination based on age, disability, or genetic information of applicants or employees. The EEOC conducts various types of training and can help you find a format that is right for you. More information about outreach and training programs is available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/outreach/index.cfm. You should also feel free to contact the EEOC with questions about effective workplace policies that can help prevent discrimination, or for more specialized questions, by calling 1-800-669-4000 (TTY 1-800-669-6820), or sending written inquiries to: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Office of Legal Counsel, 131 M Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20507.