Some businesses implement dress codes to ensure employees dress appropriately at work. The intention is to do what’s best for the business, and to create a positive image. But a person’s style of dress is often personal, and influenced by things such as religious and cultural beliefs.
An employer must consider the possible legal ramifications of implementing a workplace dress code. How far can a company go when it comes to telling employees how to dress? Legally, a dress code must not cross over into the realm of harassment or discrimination.
Discussing the dress code with employees beforehand is possibly a wise decision. That give you a chance to get feedback, and makes employees a part of the process. This can help you spot potential legal pitfalls before they become an issue.
To properly implement a dress code, you must make sure the dress code is legal. A dress code should….
1. Avoid Religious Discrimination
It’s common for people to wear certain items based on the rules and customs of their religion. For example, a religion might require followers to wear a head covering in public at all times. Creating a dress code that prohibits wearing a head covering could possibly infringe upon a person’s religious freedom.
Make sure the dress code explains how an employee can request an exemption based on religious grounds. Also, make sure the dress code explains in detail the reason for the prohibition. If there’s a legitimate business reason for prohibiting the garment, then it’s possible to avoid a claim of discrimination.
Legally, it’s in your best interest to carefully review any request for a dress code exemption. Try to reach a compromise if possible.
You’re not legally bound to allow any type of clothing just because it’s considered part of an employee’s religion. This is especially true if the clothing is a safety hazard, and poses a threat to employees. If you want a really good overview from the EEOC on religious dress, here is a good resource.
2. Avoid Discrimination Based on National Origin
An employee can possibly claim national origin discrimination. This claim is a possibility when a dress code prohibits wearing an item of clothing associated with a specific culture. But the same dress code doesn’t prohibit similar types of clothing.
For example, a business dress code might prohibit employees from wearing clothing that exhibits foreign flags. But the dress code allows clothing that exhibits the domestic flag. This can trigger a claim of discrimination based on national origin.
3. Avoid Harassment and Discrimination Based on Sex or Gender
Differences in dress codes for men and women are acceptable within reason. It’s common for men and women to have different dress and grooming practices. But it’s illegal for a dress code to result in a situation that gives one sex an advantage over the other.
Take for example a job that requires a lot of walking and heavy lifting – such as in a warehouse. Requiring women to wear dresses and high heels would put them at a disadvantage against men wearing jeans and flat shoes. The dress code might even discourage women from applying for employment, but men would not be discouraged.
It’s also important to equally enforce the dress code. If women are reprimanded for not following the dress code, men that don’t follow the dress code should be reprimanded as well. Targeting one group over the other can possibly lead to claims of sexual harassment.
4. Avoid Discrimination Based on Disability
Disability-based discrimination is often overlooked when creating dress codes. There are situations in which an employee’s disability prohibits them from complying with a dress code.
Employers should take disabled employees into consideration when creating dress codes. If a disabled employee is unable to comply with the dress code, provide instructions on how they can request an exemption.
It’s best to reach a compromise when possible. The only exception is if a compromise would endanger other employees.
The Possible Legal Pitfalls of a Dress Code
It’s important to carefully review your business dress code before implementation. As you can see, there are several legal pitfalls that can unintentionally result. And with so many potential legal issues, you may wonder if any dress code is legal.
If you have doubts about implementing a dress code, make sure there’s a solid logical reason for every item in the code. That’s the best way to make sure the dress code can withstand legal claims against it. Of course, if you ultimately need to discipline an employee for breaking your dress code there is a proper way to go about that.
Explain the dress code to employees. Make sure they understand the reasoning behind the dress code’s requirements. It’s also wise to stress that employees can request exemptions based on religious beliefs or issues involving disabilities.
As an employer, understand that you must consider all requests for dress code exemptions. Failure to do so could land you in legal hot water. You must also make it clear that you’re willing to compromise, unless compromising creates a dangerous environment.
If you’re unsure about your business dress code, it’s best to seek legal advice. You just might have a dress code policy that crosses over into illegal territory. It’s best to consult an attorney before a problem arises.