Domino's takes it on chin Bearded man wins right to pizza job

April 02, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

A bearded Sikh immigrant has won the right to an all-American job at Domino's Pizza.

Prabhjot S. Kohli, 53, of Catonsville suffered religious discrimination when a local Domino's franchisee refused to hire him in 1987 as a manager in training because Mr. Kohli wouldn't shave his beard, an administrative law judge has ruled.

Judge Merry C. Hudson ordered LOOC Inc., the Timonium-based franchisee, to offer Mr. Kohli the next available manager-trainee position and give him nearly $6,000 in back pay. She also told the company to revise its "no-beard" policy to accommodate people whose religious beliefs prohibit shaving if they're willing to wear a beard net, as Mr. Kohli was.

"This is the first case involving religious accommodation and a no-beard policy nationwide where the plaintiff has been successful," said Sally Swann, a lawyer for the Maryland Human Relations Commission, which brought the charges.

Mr. Kohli said he was "pleased that in this country, human rights are more valuable than the foolish idols of corporate leadership who just make policy to suit their whims."

The Domino's franchisee, which has two dozen outlets in the Baltimore area, wouldn't say yesterday whether it would appeal.

"We're evaluating the decision, and we don't have a comment at this point," said Kathleen Pontone, a lawyer who represented LOOC.

The Sikh religion is a sect of Hinduism founded in northwestern India and followed by 14 million people, including 300,000 in the United States. Sikh scripture prohibits the faithful from cutting their body hair. A Sikh who does so may be excommunicated. A devout Sikh also wears a turban and a small dagger on his body.

Mr. Kohli's desire to work as a Domino's manager collided with a longstanding, corporate no-beard policy adopted in 1978. A LOOC official told Mr. Kohli he couldn't work for Domino's unless he shaved. Officials at Domino's headquarters in Michigan told him no exceptions could be made.

At a June 1991 hearing, however, a Domino's executive testified that the company can authorize exceptions, according to testimony recounted in Judge Hudson's order.

In addition, a personnel executive with Pizza Hut, Domino's chief competitor, testified that he had made selective exceptions to his company's no-beard policy.

Domino's presented results from two of its national surveys -- a "Beard Perception Study" and a "Beard Snood Perception Study" -- to show that some customers wouldn't buy pizza from a beardedemployee. A snood is a net-like covering for the beard.

But the judge ruled that Domino's wouldn't suffer undue hardship or lose any competitive edge by letting Mr. Kohli manage a store if he wore a beard net. No Maryland health law requires food service employees to be clean-shaven.

Dr. Bhupinder Singh, who testified in the case on behalf of the 110 families of the Sikh Association of Baltimore, said yesterday that Domino's handled Mr. Kohli's application "very poorly without having consideration for the sensitivity of the issue."

Dr. Singh, a surgeon, said that if he could successfully operate on patients, then surely Mr. Kohli could make pizza.

Mr. Kohli immigrated from India in 1985 and works as a state highway project engineer. He said he applied to Domino's because "sales was my forte" and the company said top-flight managers could earn up to $75,000 a year.

Now he is not sure he will take the job that Domino's has been ordered to offer him.

"I have stability in state government. I command respect here. At my age, stability is important," Mr. Kohli said.

"But this opens the door for other people. It's good for my progeny," he said.

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