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Can employers have dress code requirements that differ between genders?

There are circumstances when an employer may have dress code requirements that differ for male and female employees. Federal courts have historically allowed different dress standards at work if policies are reasonable and don't place a significantly higher burden on one gender.

Employers are cautioned not to go too far and risk violating employees' rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—a federal statute protecting employees from discrimination, which includes the protected category of sex. An employer cannot force employees to conform or identify with a certain gender associated with their sex—and make an employment-based decision when an employee refuses; for example, terminating or refusing to promote a female employee who will not wear a skirt even though the employer is aware she is a transgender employee could violate her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. State laws should be reviewed as well. For example, California specifically prohibits an employer from refusing to permit employees to wear pants based on the sex of the employee.

Employers are often faced with gender dress code decisions that are not based on gender identity but rather generational differences or individual preferences—for example, men who choose to wear nail polish or earrings. It is recommended that employers apply dress code expectations in a gender-neutral manner to avoid gender stereotypes and potential discrimination claims.

Employers should establish a consistent culture of dress for men and women, such as corporate dress, business casual or a blend of both, such as corporate dress and casual Fridays. Employers should define expectations of proper dress and present these expectations to employees. An easy way is to provide a list of what can and cannot be worn at work. Finally, when there are policy violations, consider the nature of the policy violation to ensure you are not violating the civil rights of any employee.


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