Adapting a Uniform to Suit Beliefs Can Pay Off

By Steve Taylor Oct 12, 2010
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Quietly, and with denials that their policies have changed, the Walt Disney Company and the U.S. Army have accommodated employee requests to wear religious head coverings as part of required uniforms. Each organization said there are benefits to such accommodations.

Disney, whose theme park, hotel, cruise ship, restaurant and store employees often wear uniforms, decided in August 2010, to allow a Chicago woman to serve an internship as a vacation planner at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., while wearing a Muslim hijab, or headscarf.

Originally, Disney told the woman, Noor Abdallah, 22, that she would have to take a different job, away from guests, consistent with a determination the company has made in several other cases. In this instance, however, Disney promised the job shift would be temporary, until company costumers could adapt the vacation planner’s usual uniform (which includes a cap) to add a hijab.

During the dispute, Abdallah enlisted the help of the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA), which urged Disney to allow her to continue working as a vacation planner.

Resolution came quickly.

“My understanding is that she arrived mid-August and we had the first rendition of a head covering in about a week,” said Suzi Brown, director, media relations & external communications for Disneyland Resort.

The final design included a headscarf that matched the uniform slacks, plus a beret atop the scarf. “It actually doesn’t look bad,” said CAIR-LA communications managerMunira Syeda. “[It] keeps Ms. Abdallah’s human dignity intact and respects her as an individual and as an employee.”

Brown said the costume adjustment was not part of a new policy. “Disney Parks and Resorts has a long history of accommodating religious requests from cast members of all faiths; and in fact we have made over 200 accommodations in the last three years.”

But not in every case.

A Bonnet with a Bow

In the same month that Abdallah’s dispute was resolved, another Muslim woman, Imane Boudlal, 26, a Disney restaurant hostess in Anaheim, brought legal action against the company after she was told to remove her hijab or take a job working out of customers’ view.

In a letter to Disney executives, CAIR-LA executive director Hussam Ayloush said that since the Abdallah case “clearly demonstrates that accommodation of Muslim women's requests to wear the headscarf is possible in 'front-stage' positions … I strongly urge Disney to institutionalize a process for [those] who make similar religious accommodation requests, to be accommodated ...”

In fact, Disney tried to devise head coverings for Boudlal, including a bow-tied bonnet with a large hat on top, according to her union. Boudlal was quoted in USA Today as calling the ensemble “embarrassing” and “humiliating.”

Boudlal wanted to wear her own hijab at work. Said Brown, “In a costumed role, they have to wear the costume.”

When You’re Not Disney

Most HR professionals do not have wardrobe departments at their disposal, but they might have female Muslims on the payroll, uniformed and not, who report to work with headscarves.

“What we would encourage HR people to do is take advantage of the opportunity to get to know the employee, get to understand her religious practices and understand the accommodations she is asking for,” said Syeda. “She wears the headscarf to please God.” In HR terms, she added, “It is part of the dress code of a Muslim woman.”

Sikhs in the Army

The Army cases involved a different religion and a different kind of head covering. In 2010, three male Sikhs entered basic training wearing traditional turbans over unshorn hair. They retained the beards required by their faith.

The Army’s acceptance of the three is another change in practice that does not reflect a change in policy.

Since World War One, observant Sikhs had been allowed to serve in the military. In the early 1980’s, however, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) tightened the rules, and Sikh enlistments in the armed forces stopped.

In August 2009, 47 Senators and Representatives wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to express concern that two Sikhs who had been recruited, Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and Tejdeep Singh Rattan, had been told they would have to remove their turbans and cut their hair and beards.

Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization based in Fremont, Calif., said the Defense Department and the Army “sort of punted the issue back and forth, and DOD finally told the Army to make a decision.”

The Army allowed Kalsi, 34, a doctor, and Rattan, 31, a dentist, both now captains, to retain their Sikh appearance. They became the Army’s first observant Sikh recruits in almost 30 years. Then the Army signed up a non-officer, Simran Preet Singh Lamba, 26, who was “recruited for his Punjabi language skills,” according to Kaur.

Was there congressional pressure behind the decisions, or was it the personnel demands of foreign conflicts?

Kaur observed, “When there’s a need for religious accommodation that advances military necessity, then exceptions can be made.”

However, DOD has not changed its policy, Army spokesperson George Wright said. “The default position is for everyone to wear the same uniform display.” However, he added, applications for religious accommodation are taken “on a case-by-case basis.”

“We have asked for a policy change,” said Kaur. “We’re hoping these [three soldiers] will show there’s nothing about being a Sikh that prevents somebody from serving successfully and honorably.”

Positive Publicity

Such accommodations can lead to positive outcomes, as news of organizational practices tends to spread through religious communities.

Lamba enlisted in the Army after hearing about the other Sikh accommodations.

“From an HR point of view, if you show individual employees you value them and are willing to make accommodations based on cultures and beliefs, that’s going to have a progressive effect,” said Saad Ahmed, a Muslim man who works in business development for Viget Labs, a web design company in Falls Church, Va. “It makes people think, ‘Hey, I belong here.’ ”

Syeda said she believes a company “would want to be viewed as embracing its employees and having their best interests at heart” in order to attract customers.

Brown said Disney looks at it that way: “We think about diversity in the broadest terms [because the] cast members at Disneyland Resort reflect the diversity of our guests and community.”

Ahmed said keeping a company open to religious accommodations “really gives out a good brand identity.” And he said employees will talk about it to others of their faiths. “It will go viral. And you can’t buy that PR.”

Steve Taylor is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Related Articles:

Muslims Say They Welcome Simple Accommodating Gestures, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, Aug. 4, 2010

Religious Expression: The Devil Is in the Details, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, April 5, 2010

Training Can Help Prevent Religion-Related Gaffes, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, April 23, 2009

Army Challenged to Accommodate Religion, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, April 23, 2009

Homer Simpson Faces Islamophobia, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Dec. 15, 2008

Religious Accommodation Expected for Employees in Uniform, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, Oct. 15, 2008
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