The question that many employers ask is “can I tell my employees what to wear and even how to look when showing up for work?” The answer is “it depends.” The bottom line is that an employer has the right to address employee appearance and dress code standards, but the employer should do so reasonably and responsibly. For instance, employers are generally allowed to prohibit visible tattoos and body piercings at work by requiring the tattoos be covered and limiting the visibility of body jewelry. When establishing a policy, employers should keep in mind that the explanation for the policy should be to maintain a good reputation or to ensure the health and safety of employees and customers—not to be the “fashion police.” If a policy is not fine-tuned to the needs of the company, and the employer has no legitimate explanation for it, then the policy may violate federal law, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
BOUNDARIES OF FEDERAL LAW
- Sex Discrimination: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC) has supported employer policies that require men and women to wear different uniforms, as long as the policy does not create an undue burden, or a significant difficulty, on either sex. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins determined that Title VII applied not only to sex discrimination, but also included gender stereotyping. Gender stereotyping occurs if an employer insists that an employee possess certain traits or features because of their sex (i.e., only females can wear pink to work).
- Race Discrimination: In regards to appearance and dress polices, intentional race discrimination claims are uncommon. However, some appearance polices may create a disparate impact on certain races who may need to be accommodated. For example, a policy requiring men to be clean-shaven does not target any race on the face of the policy, but because some African-American men have curly hair, shaving for these men can cause Pseudofolliculitis barea—a painful skin condition. In this situation, an employer may need to accommodate these individuals, such as allowing facial hair nets if the employee is in food service. However, if an employer can show a legitimate safety reason for the policy—such as the use of respirator masks where having facial hair may interfere with—then accommodation may not be necessary.
- Religious Discrimination: Both federal and state laws may require employers to provide accommodations to employees, with regard to dress and appearance codes, because of an employee’s religious beliefs. For example, the EEOC brought a charge against Alliance Rental Center for requiring an employee to wear a red shirt in support of the U.S. military. The employee, a Jehovah’s Witness, objected to the dress code stating his religious beliefs required him to abstain from any opinion about governmental and military affairs. Upon informing his supervisors about his religious conflict, the employee was reprimanded for noncompliance with the dress code. Title VII requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations for employees with a sincerely held religious belief, unless it creates an undue hardship on the employer. An undue hardship is when the accommodation requires anything more than a de minimus cost—too costly or too difficult to provide. For example, if religious headwear would pose a legitimate safety concern in the workplace, an employer is not required to provide the accommodation.
- Disability Discrimination:If an employer requires that all employees wear formal attire, then it is legal to require employees with a disability to comply with the policy as well. However, under the ADA, an employer may be required to accommodate an employee’s disability with regards to a dress or appearance policy. For example, an employee with cerebral palsy may have difficulty with a uniform that includes zippers. Once the employee informs his or her employer about the problem, the employer must look into reasonable accommodations for the employee—such as using Velcro instead of zippers. Yet, if an undue hardship would result to the employer, then accommodation is unnecessary.
- Tattoos, Piercings, Hairstyles, Head Coverings, and the like: With the exception of religion, employees do not have any legal right of self-expression in the workplace. Therefore, an employer can require employees to cover up tattoos, remove piercings, restrict head gear, and even require certain hairstyles, as long as the requirement is reasonable. But before doing so, the employer should think about the nature of his or her business, and then impose narrowly tailored restrictions on an employee’s clothing and appearance. A personal preference is not likely to be narrowly tailored to the business.
INSIGHTS FOR EMPLOYERS
- Think about the needs and nature of the business.
- Write a dress and appearance policy in an employee manual or handout so that employees can refer to an accessible resource. Make sure the policy is directly related to the needs of the company and not the personal preference of the employer.
- Keep in mind that while employers can regulate the appearance of employees in the workplace, employers need to be careful not to implement policies that could be considered discriminatory with regard to an employee’s race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, age, or any other protected class.
- Do not attempt to regulate an employee’s appearance outside of work.
- The policy can explain the reason for enacting these rules (i.e., professionalism).
- The greater the nexus of the policy is to a legitimate safety concern, the more restrictive the policy is allowed to be.
- When creating a subjective policy (i.e., dress “casual”), define the subjective term because these words will be interpreted differently by each employee.
- Lay out discipline procedures for employees who fail to follow the policy. Ensure that all supervisors understand the policy, and ensure the supervisors enforce the rules consistently and equally for all employees.
The EEOC will continue to scrutinize businesses that fail to accommodate employees who have a legitimate need for accommodation. Unless an accommodation would pose an undue burden on the employer, or unless the business can tie the policy into an essential part of the company (i.e., safety issues, Disney character employees, etc.), employers should re-consider any decision not to accommodate an employee’s request for accommodation.
Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.