No Yarmulkes, No Headscarves: Job Discrimination or Company Policy?

An employer's attempt to enforce a dress code draws sympathy and outrage.

ByMary Beth Lavender and Oliver Miede
May 03, 2011, 11:15 AM

May 6, 2011 -- A young woman applies for a job as a waitress at a diner and is told the position is hers, on one condition: She can't wear her Muslim headscarf while she works. "It's not part of what we do," says the manager. "It makes a statement that we don't want to make here."

Is this simply a businessman enforcing his employee dress code, or a case of religious discrimination? That's the question "What Would You Do?" poses by hiring actors wearing religious garb and staging a job interview with an inflexible boss – also an actor – in full view of other customers. Will anyone defend our eager jobseekers, or will onlookers take the side of management?

With our hidden cameras in place at the Omega Diner in North Brunswick, N.J., we begin the scene. In walks our first actor, Nathan, who's not only playing the role of a Jewish job applicant – he is Jewish.

The interview with the manager, Vince, starts off innocently enough.

"Do you have reliable transportation?" asks Vince.

"Yeah, I do," says Nathan. "Car's right outside."

So far, so good. But then Vince starts to discuss the restaurant's dress code.

"The uniform is very basic, as you can see," he says. "White shirt, tie, black pants. Obviously, you can't wear a yarmulke. I'm sure you understand that."

The yarmulke that Vince is referring to is the round cloth cap that is often worn by observant Jewish men.

Suddenly, the conversation between the two men becomes heated. Nathan explains that he wears his yarmulke every day for religious reasons. But Vince isn't swayed, insisting that none of his employees are allowed to express their religious beliefs while on the job.

It's only when Nathan says, "Respectfully, sir, THAT is illegal" that customers sitting nearby start to pay attention. Eventually, a man who was sitting directly behind their booth walks up to them on his way out.

"I overheard your conversation," he says. "I don't think it would offend anybody with that," pointing to Nathan's yarmulke. "He's got a good personality."

Vince, the manager, responds, "It makes a statement, though ... to his religious beliefs."

"Who cares?" says the customer. "I just want good food and good service. If he's hospitable, he's a nice guy, who cares what his religious beliefs are?"

But not everyone who heard their exchange agrees. When Nathan finally storms out of the diner in disgust, two other customers express their solidarity with the manager.

"If it's your policy, it's your policy," says one customer. Across the aisle, another man says, "If they tell you you gotta wear short hair, you gotta wear short hair. It's just how a place runs the place."

A woman seated across from the man adds, "If you don't like it, you can get up and walk out."

What these customers may not realize, however, is that treating a job applicant or employee differently because of his or her religious beliefs is against the law. In fact, Title Seven of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires employers to provide a "reasonable accommodation, unless doing so would result in undue hardship."

As the lunch crowd starts to roll in, we decide to switch things up a bit. First we bring in an actress portraying a Muslim job applicant wearing a hijab – a traditional Muslim headscarf. Later we run the same scenario with an actor playing a Sikh who refuses to take off his turban.

Will their refusal to comply with the manager's dress code draw sympathy from nearby customers, or will some be outraged by the manager's demands? Watch the scenario unfold on on the latest episode of "What Would You Do?"

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