Employee Appearance Policies Pose Risks

By Steve Taylor Jul 15, 2009
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Does an employee appearance policy geared toward a certain “look” among employees automatically exclude people whose appearance varies from the company-defined norm? And if so, is such a policy justified by a company’s need to protect and reinforce its image—its brand—by controlling the way its people present themselves?

“Employees are the face of the company to the public,” says consultant Sandy Moore, co-owner of Image Talks in Portland, Ore. “When that face does not consistently support the brand, it certainly undermines the business plan [and any] attempts for creating a consistent message. And that translates to bottom-line dollars.”

Moore’s company advises businesses in matters of visual branding and develops materials for training employees, with close attention to matters of clothing and grooming. She says that inconsistent appearance among employees is “confusing” to customers. “If I have an appointment with a financial advisor and that financial advisor looks like he has no financial security of his own,” she explains, “then as a consumer I’m not going to have confidence that the information they’re giving me has a lot behind it.”

Appearance policies matter in retail settings. Moore remembers a trip to a big box store: “I was helped by a young man who had tattoos coming up his neck and face, [plus] multiple piercings of the face.” She recalls she had doubts about the employee’s cleanliness and her own safety. “That was a few years ago and many of us are more used to those things now. But not all of us,” she adds.

That’s why visible tattoos and most piercings are prohibited in the dress code at Dion’s Pizza, a restaurant chain headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M. Human resource director Blair Boyer says the code was recently updated to cover multiple earrings for women. “There’s a lot of young females that have two sets of earrings,” he acknowledges. “What we wanted to avoid was individuals with 19 earrings running up and down the ear… We didn’t feel that was the kind of appearance we wanted to support.”

“We’re often told we’re discriminating against people with tattoos,” Boyer adds. “I have a tattoo myself. It’s just not visible.”

He says most applicants accept the dress code, especially in the current economy. “I’ve had young people so excited about coming to work for Dion’s that they took out a nose piercing they’ve paid a lot of money for… If you’re willing to take it out during your shift, you can work for us.”

Our Way or the Highway?

But what happens when employees have a different “look” because of religious or cultural identities?

That’s “a kettle of worms,” says Moore. “Religious beliefs absolutely must be respected and adjustments made.” About religious expressions in the workplace, she says, “Unless there is an intent behind the use of the symbol to proselytize, I think it’s entirely acceptable.”

Others are not so sure. Blair Boyer says Dion’s Pizza “will go above and beyond to accommodate” an employee who has a good reason for a different appearance, but he adds, “as long as it fits within our guidelines.” Details, he suggests, must emerge case-by-case.

“If we have folks who ask for an accommodation, we work through it,” says Deon Riley, SPHR, vice president of human resources for Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F). “If a person says, ‘I need to wear a yarmulke,’ well, if the yarmulke is black and his hair is black, that doesn’t take away from the brand.” A female’s religious headdress, however, “is a stretch, because it covers their whole top most of the time…. It’s hard to say that won’t hurt our branding.”

“We sell T-shirts and tank tops,” Riley adds. “We don’t sell headdresses.”

The Abercrombie & Fitch Difference

The giant retail clothing chain requires its sales associates to present the image of a clean cut All-American of late teen- to college age. “There’s this girl-or guy-next door look,” Riley says, “that classic jeans-and-T-shirt look.” A&F wants clean-shaven men and energetic women who might be seen striding across a fantasy college campus. “Since we do little advertising,” Riley says, “our models, the sales staff, are the walking billboards for what we sell.”

A&F is being sued by an employee in London, England, who was hired as a model even though she has a prosthetic arm. The young woman, a law student named Riam Dean, told a London newspaper that she received permission to wear a long-sleeved cardigan sweater on the sales floor. Later, she says, a member of A&F’s “visual team” told her the cardigan put her appearance in conflict with the season’s short-sleeved look, and a manager assigned her to stockroom work.

At A&F’s home office in New Albany, Ohio, Riley says, “We were fine with the arm showing. She wasn’t fine with the arm showing.” Riley says A&F wanted to keep Dean on the staff. “We have positions that don’t have as much customer interface that are exciting.”

In a separate case five years ago, Abercrombie & Fitch agreed to pay $40 million to several thousand female and minority employees and former employees who alleged gender and race discrimination. The company also agreed to hire a vice president for diversity and 25 recruiters to focus on hiring women and minority employees.

A Policy That Passes Muster

San Francisco attorney Jahan Sagafi, one of the attorneys conducting the class action suit against A&F, says companies seeking to regulate the “look” of their employees should be wary of three types of potential discrimination:

  • Systemic affirmative bias
  • Discrimination by individuals
  • Unconscious bias

“If you have a look policy that says you have to … look like the pictures on the office walls, and they are overwhelmingly white,” that’s an example of systemic bias, Sagafi says, as is companies that say, ‘Employees have to relate to our customers,’ [when] the typical customer is a white male.”

The second type, discrimination by individuals in a position to hire or promote, can be a threat to a company when it fails to deter the “bad apples,” Sagafi says. “HR needs to take responsibility for having a robust system for detecting those individuals.”

About the third type, Sagafi says research shows that most people, white and black, male and female, often have significant unconscious bias in favor of stereotypically straight white males. The best way for HR professionals to offset this tendency, he says, is to be sure that objective criteria drive the hiring and promotion processes. “If your criterion is, ‘Do I like him or not?’ you’re maximizing your chances for unconscious bias.”

“Keep track of your numbers,” he advises. “Monitor yourself as a plaintiff’s attorney or a judge might monitor you.”

Steve Taylor is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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