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Supreme Court Ruling: Employer Motives Matter in Hiring… or Not Hiring

Imagine interviewing for a job and leaving confident you made a good impression, only to be told you didn’t get the position. Their reasoning, they say, was violating the “Look Policy.” This unfortunate turn of events is all too real and something Samantha Elauf, a 17-year-old Muslim, experienced.

Eluaf applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch back in 2008. The interviewing manager gave her high remarks, but was concerned about her head scarf, because it may have violated the clothing chain’s “Look Policy.” Despite informing the district manager that Elauf’s head scarf was worn perhaps for religious reasons, the manager was directed not to hire her. Eluaf never told Abercrombie that she needed religious accommodation for her head scarf, but it was assumed by the hiring manager.

Fast-forward seven years later and Abercrombie finds itself in legal constraint. After hearing of Eluaf’s story, the Equal Opportunity Commission took action. In the case decided June 1, the Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie, eight to one, stating that failure to accommodate a religious practice is considered intentional discrimination and, therefore, violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. According to the Supreme Court, “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” In this case, employer motivations mattered.

How do you avoid a discrimination case like this?

Lessons for Employers

  • Review your policies. Are there any that could conflict with religious beliefs, including dress codes, required work on Sundays, etc.? If so, be prepared to clearly articulate these requirements.
  • Train hiring personnel. It is important to train others how to properly address religious beliefs and accommodations. This precaution can help reduce liability for your organization.
  • Document everything. You do not have to hire an individual who needs a religious accommodation, but if you decide not to, be sure it is because there was better-qualified individual and that the interview and hiring process were documented.

Religious practice is a protected characteristic, so organizations need to be able to accommodate those needs. The Supreme Court’s decision is a great reminder that there is no place for discrimination at work. Employers should welcome diversity, not turn their backs on it.