Dress Codes and Grooming Codes in the Workplace

Avoid discrimination and other legal problems when adopting grooming and dress code policies for employees.

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The law gives employers a lot of leeway in creating the culture they desire in their workplace, and this includes allowing employers to decide how employees should dress and groom. Some employers like to set a professional tone by requiring employees to wear suits. Other employers like to foster a more creative environment by allowing employees to wear T-shirts and blue jeans. Just about any rule is fine, as long as it doesn't violate laws against discrimination or harassment. Read on to learn more about workplace dress codes and grooming codes, and how to avoid legal problems when creating and enforcing policies. (Employers can get more tips on steering clear of discrimination in Nolo's Preventing Employment Discrimination & Sexual Harassment topic.)

Sexual Harassment

If you require employees to dress in a sexual or revealing way, you may be accused of harassing these employees -- or encouraging others (customers, for example) to harass them. Although courts differ on what constitutes harassment in this context, requiring employees to dress in a provocative way -- such as requiring women to wear short skirts or men to wear tight T-shirts -- is asking for trouble. If you think such a dress code is necessary for your business, consult with an attorney before imposing it. (Learn more in Nolo's article Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.)

Sex Discrimination

Some employers impose different standards of dress and grooming on female and male employees. For example, an employer might allow women to wear their hair long, but require men to wear theirs short. Similarly, an employer might prohibit men from wearing makeup while requiring women to do so.

Generally speaking, these sorts of differentiations are okay. Employers run into trouble, however, if their dress and grooming code isn't based on social norms, differs greatly between men and women, or imposes a greater burden on one gender than the other.

EXAMPLE

Darlene Jespersen worked as a bartender at Harrah's Casino. The casino had a dress and grooming policy that, among other things, required women to wear makeup and prohibited men from doing so. Jespersen, who never wore makeup at work or at home, objected to the policy, and eventually had to quit when she wouldn't comply. She sued the casino, claiming that the grooming policy was discriminatory. The court disagreed, saying that the code did not place a heavier burden on women than on men, nor did it sexually stereotype women. Instead, the code required male and female employees to maintain a similar professional look and was therefore legal. Jespersen v. Harrah's Operating Co., Inc., 444 F.3d 1104 (9th Cir. 2006).

Race Discrimination

No employer would intentionally impose different dress or grooming standards on different races -- this would be obvious and blatant discrimination -- but you might impose a standard that has an unintentional discriminatory impact. For example, requiring all men to be clean-shaven can have a negative impact on African American men, some of whom have a physical sensitivity to shaving. Such a requirement is discriminatory.

Religious Discrimination

Some religions impose certain dress and grooming requirements on their members. For example, some Native Americans are not allowed to cut their hair; some Muslims must wear beards and certain garments. If your company's grooming or dress policies force people to violate their religious beliefs, you are opening yourself up to claims of religious discrimination.

EXAMPLE

Edward Rangel is a member of a religious sect that requires him to wear religious inscriptions in the form of tattoos. Members of the sect believe that the tattoos symbolize a follower's dedication and servitude to the creator and that it is a sin to intentionally conceal them. Rangel was a server at a Red Robin restaurant, which had a rule against visible tattoos. Rangel worked at the restaurant for about six months without any complaints from customers, managers, or coworkers, but when a new manager arrived, he ordered Rangel to cover the tattoos. When Rangel refused, explaining his religious reasons, the manager fired him. Rangel brought his case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, the federal agency that enforces antidiscrimination laws), which filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the chain. Although the chain defended its policy by stating that it wanted its servers to have an "all-American look," it eventually settled the case for $150,000.

This does not mean that you must abandon all of your dress and grooming rules because of an employee's religious beliefs. If your policy is rooted in a valid business purpose that cannot be changed to accommodate a religious need, you might be okay. For example, certain types of garments may not be safe to wear when operating machinery, and certain hairstyles may be unhealthy in a food service context if employees refuse to wear hair nets or beard nets.

If an employee challenges a dress or grooming policy on religious grounds, be as accommodating as possible. But if you can't reach a compromise that works for you and the employee, consult with an attorney.

National Origin Discrimination

Dress codes that prohibit employees from wearing native attire -- for example, traditional African or Indian dress -- might be discriminatory if the employer does not have a valid business reason for the ban. For example, the EEOC has said that employers must allow Hawaiians to wear their native dress so long as the attire otherwise complies with the employer's dress code.

Disability Discrimination

Employers may require employees with disabilities to comply with the same dress requirements as other employees. For example, if you require formal attire of all your employees, it is legal to require the same of your employees who have disabilities.

Sometimes, however, an employee's disability makes it impossible to comply with the dress code. If an employee asks you to modify your dress code because of a disability, you must accommodate that request if possible.

EXAMPLE

John is paralyzed from the waist down and must use a wheelchair. His employer has a dress code that requires all employees to wear a uniform. John's disability makes it impossible for him to manipulate the zippers and the snaps on the uniform. In addition, the shape of the uniform makes sitting in the chair uncomfortable. John brings these issues to the attention of his employer, who finds a tailor to make a special uniform for John that uses Velcro instead of zippers and that is cut in such a way that it no longer bunches up in the chair. The employer can require John to wear the new uniform, and John is happy to do so.

When Employees Complain About Dress Codes

In the end, common sense and respect for your employees are your best guides in creating a dress code. Strive to treat your employees similarly, and consider carefully any requests from employees to adjust your dress code according to their needs. If you and the employee can't reach a suitable agreement, consult with an attorney. To locate an employment law attorney in your area, visit Nolo's Lawyer Directory, where you can view information about each lawyer's experience, education, fees, and, perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law. By using Nolo's directory you can narrow down candidates before calling them for a phone or face-to-face interview.

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