Head Case

5 Jan

Letterbalm Hard HatDear LetterBalm: I’m the manager of a large manufacturing plant, and our work requires assembly-line employees to wear hardhats as a safety measure. One of my employees is a religious Sikh. His religion states he must wear a Dastaar, a head covering. So, for the two years he’s been working on the line here, he’s been wearing that, not a helmet. But before Christmas we had an OSHA inspection, and we were cited because the factory wasn’t in compliance of headgear regulations because of him. He’s a very good worker and well-liked by everyone. I’m not quite sure how to approach this. What should I say to him?

Floor Supervisor

It’s tough to be a boss these days. Ms. L.B. hopes you have a labor attorney on staff or on retainer because you need some expert help. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, also known as Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), governs an array of federal anti-discrimination laws if you have 15 or more employees. Employment decisions must be made on the basis of business requirements, not on a worker’s membership in a federally-protected class or group. Religion is one of those considerations. Because your employee hasn’t been wearing safety headgear for two years, you must tread carefully. He’s in technical non-compliance, but he can legally argue that his employer has tacitly agreed to this because he hasn’t been forced to wear a helmet since he started working at the company. Depending on what your lawyer says, you can approach your employee – calmly, with the proper official present and without drawing undue attention to your sit-down – in this way:

Adesh, you’re one of the best workers we’ve got, which is why I’m taking time to talk with you without your co-workers around. During our recent OSHA inspection we were cited because of a federal health and safety rule that, for business purposes, requires everybody on the line to wear a hardhat. I know that your religion prohibits you from removing your turban, and you haven’t worn a helmet since you began working here. But according to the law, workers can’t continue in the job if they don’t wear proper headgear. I certainly don’t mean to be insensitive in asking this, but can you approach your spiritual leader and request an exemption from wearing the Dastaar because of your employer’s business requirements? Or, a modification of your turban to accommodate a hardhat? If that won’t be possible, maybe we can give you another job that doesn’t conflict with your religious beliefs. That will be difficult, but we’ll try. We certainly don’t want to lose you. Can you help us here?

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