Introduction to Dress Codes in the Workplace
Our culture celebrates diversity and individuality, and this shows in many of the choices people make. We make all kinds of decisions based upon not only our personal tastes and preferences but also on what will help us stand out from the crowd. You can see this in the way some have chosen to decorate their residences, the names they have chosen for their children, and the clothing that they buy and wear. This desire to express individuality even carries into the workplace, where some attempt to wear distinctive clothing while on the job. Some employers have resisted this by imposing mandatory dress codes. When can an employer regulate what his or her employees can wear, and what are the limitations of this authority?
The General Rule: Dress Codes are Permissible
In general, an employer can impose a minimum dress code on his or her employees for a legitimate business purpose. For example, a sales office may legitimately require that employees wear business attire that is clean, appropriate, and not offensive. A restaurant can require waiters and waitresses to wear a shirt with the company logo affixed. A dress code designed to increase the company’s reputation and revenue or the cohesion of the staff is, in most instances, legitimate. Employees in such situations that do not wish to adopt the dress code are often left without any legal recourse: they can either adopt the dress code or find another workplace.
When the Employer Must Modify a Dress Code
Employers must make reasonable accommodations if the company’s dress code conflicts with a worker’s sincerely held religious beliefs. For example, an employee who is Jewish should be afforded (in most cases) an accommodation and be permitted to wear a yarmulke while on a car showroom’s sales floor even though the dress code may prohibit hats. An employer who refuses to do so may be in violation of state and federal discrimination laws and may be subject to an administrative action or civil suit.
If such a suit is brought, the employer must show that a reasonable accommodation would present an undue hardship on the employer. In the example above with the Jewish worker, this would be a difficult standard for the employer to meet. It would be equally difficult for a convenience store to impose its “no facial hair” dress code against a Sikh adherent whose beard is closely tied to his or her religion.
In many cases, though, the employer can have the dress code upheld and affirmed by showing that employee safety would be jeopardized by granting an exception to the dress code. For example, if the Jewish worker instead worked in a foundry and safety required that he wear certain protective equipment to remain safe and the yarmulke interfered with the proper wearing of that equipment, the dress code may be able to be enforced. Similarly, if the Sikh adherent worked in an environment where there were many spinning machines that could cause a person with a beard to become entangled in the machines, the company would be permitted to keep its dress code and not make an exception for the Sikh employee. See the article in Forbes on whether “Dresscodes in the Workplace Matter.”
Many employment law disputes are very fact-intensive, and their resolution depends on the circumstances present. Dress codes are no different. In many cases an employee with a concern about a dress code can simply talk the matter through with his or her employer. If this does not work and the employee believes his or her employer is infringing on his or her rights, the employee can file an administrative claim with the state Department of Labor.