Managing Employee Dress and Appearance

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Scope—This toolkit discusses dress and appearance policies in the workplace, along with legal considerations employers face in the United States and issues such as safety, religious expression, gender and race as they relate to dress and appearance. This article does not provide information on global dress and appearance considerations.

Overview

Dress codes are used to communicate to employees what the organization considers appropriate work attire. A dress code or appearance policy allows an employer to set expectations regarding the image it wants the company to convey. Dress codes can be formal or informal and might include the use of uniforms. This toolkit discusses workplace dress and appearance, including policy considerations, challenges (including discrimination issues) and best practices. The toolkit also refers to federal and state laws and to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rules that may affect dress and appearance policies.

Business Case

Employers realize that impressions made on clients and customers are important to the success of an organization. Employees typically are the "face" of the company, and employers often find it necessary to control that image. In the past, employers used dress and appearance policies to help employees work comfortably and safely while still projecting a professional image to clients, customers and future employees. Employers over the years also have used dress and appearance policies to help create an employment brand. Some organizations intentionally use dress to create a specific perception or certain image as an employer. Dress codes help employers fulfill these varying goals of comfort, professionalism, safety, brand and image.

HR's Role

Ideas behind dress and appearance have developed into more than just unwritten policies and practices made and used by managers and supervisors. Dress and appearance policies now require organizations to develop strategies that align with employer goals and culture while protecting the employer from discrimination claims and protecting employees' rights. HR, which is frequently responsible for policy development, must work with other parts of the organization to ensure that dress codes are managed consistently and fairly.

The business of dress and appearance requires HR or managers to do the following:

  • Set and manage policies by working directly with internal managers, business partners and executives.
  • Identify and mitigate legal issues, such as protected class considerations, by working with the legal department.
  • Manage employee requests for dress code accommodations.

Types of Dress Codes

Dress codes used in many organizations range from those that require formal business dress or "business casual" to those that allow more casual wear in summer or those that include grooming and hygiene standards. Employers must consider which type of dress code will not only provide the image they want to portray but will also support company cultures and values. Those cultures and values might embrace a more serious and formal image in a law firm; a uniform in a delivery company; or colorful, informal dress (that still acts as a kind of uniform) at a casual restaurant. Employers also need to consider relevant industry standards or safety regulations that affect employee dress and appearance.

See:

Address Offensive Attire with Dress Code, Nondiscrimination Policy

Should Companies Relax Their Dress Codes?

Summer Dress at Work: What's Appropriate and What's Not

Formal business attire

To present a professional, businesslike image to clients, visitors, customers and the public, some employers implement dress and appearance policies requiring formal business attire. Environments likely to enforce formal business attire are law, finance, banking and accounting firms. No casual clothing or shoes are usually allowable.

Business casual

Some employers create business casual policies that are a little less formal. Industries that tend to be more creative or artistic, like technology environments, are more likely to have a business casual dress code. The attire usually includes most apparel except shirts with graphics, shorts, torn jeans, tank tops or sandals, though policies will differ. See Attire and Grooming Policy and Business Attire Policy.

Casual Fridays

Some organizations designate Friday as the day of the week when employees may dress more informally than the normal day-to-day formal business or business casual attire. These provisions usually apply only to employees who have no client or customer contact. On these days, employees can wear blue jeans, T-shirts (without any inappropriate slogans or images), long or knee-length shorts or capri pants, and athletic shoes.

Summer casual

Many employers offer summertime policies and activities to keep employees productive and happy on sunny, warm days. The relaxed summer dress code typically runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day for employees who have no client contact. Blue jeans, T-shirts and athletic shoes are permitted, but employers may have specific provisions against showing midriffs or wearing sandals or flip-flops. See Summer Dress Policy.

Grooming and hygiene

Employers often address grooming and hygiene standards in dress code policies. Grooming standards might include the requirement that clothing be neat and clean and not ripped, frayed, disheveled, tight, revealing or otherwise inappropriate. Hygiene standards tend to include a regular bath or shower, use of deodorant, and appropriate oral hygiene.

A written policy about grooming and hygiene can help support an employer's action if a workplace situation involving hygiene arises that must be addressed by the employer. Employers should also be aware that body or breath odor issues may be related to medical conditions. If that is the case, the employer should address the issue appropriately and confidentially; otherwise, it could run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act or anti-discrimination provisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See What should HR do when an employee's body odor is affecting the workplace? and How to Talk with a Worker About Body Odor.

Legal Issues

Although no federal law bans employment decisions based on appearance in general, most employers know better than to base employment decisions on appearance that is related to legally protected factors. What employers and managers may not know is that employees' appearance can still qualify for legal protection in some situations.

For example, some local jurisdictions have enacted laws that specifically protect workers from discrimination based on appearance. And some aspects of appearance, such as those related to gender roles or sexual orientation, can—in some situations—qualify for legal protection. On the other hand, the nature of the business or of the job can play a role in determining how much latitude employers have in requiring a certain look for their employees. Whenever an organization has a job requirement such as a particular dress or grooming code, a good HR professional should question whether that criterion really is relevant to the job. See Ugly Policy Alleged at NBC: Only Beautiful People Need Apply.

A dress and appearance policy should be clear and specific. Employers also want to ensure some flexibility. Managers may need to use some discretion when dealing with certain matters such as disability, religious requirements or other case-specific issues that might require accommodations.

See:

Employees Dressing Too Casually? Clarify Your Dress Code

Managing Equal Employment Opportunity

Supreme Court Rules for EEOC in Religious Accommodation Case

Union Insignia

One aspect of dress codes is the ability of employees to wear union buttons, decals or other insignia in the workplace. The right of employees to wear union insignia at work has long been recognized as a reasonable and legitimate form of union activity. Employers that curtail that activity risk violating the National Labor Relations Act. However, an employer might be able to show special circumstances that justify limiting employees' ability to wear union insignias.

Safety could be compromised, for example, if people confused decals or buttons, such as union insignia, with safety-related insignia on uniforms. If an organization requires specific employees—those with particular certifications or training—to wear insignia indicating that they are qualified to help in an emergency, then the wearing of other insignia on their uniforms could create confusion. In an emergency, people might be confused by multiple insignias and unsure who is qualified to help. Such an example demonstrates the possible "special circumstance" in which an employer could curb employees' rights to wear union buttons, decals or other insignia. See 'Fight for $15' Pins Could Not Be Banned from Uniforms.

Disability

Many employers are familiar with making reasonable accommodations pertaining to schedules or job duty modifications. An employee with a disability can also request modification of the company dress and appearance policy as a reasonable accommodation. For example, an employee may ask to wear sneakers instead of dress shoes due to a foot condition that is a result of diabetes. Or an employee may ask to wear a different uniform shirt because of a severe allergic reaction to the material of the standard uniform shirt. Like with any reasonable accommodation, an employer must permit the exception unless it creates an undue hardship for the organization. See Applying Performance and Conduct Standards to Employees with Disabilities.

Gender disparities

A dress and grooming policy that has different requirements for men and women may be challenged because the requirements for one sex are based on stereotypes. See Can employers have dress code requirements that differ between genders?

Gender identity and accommodations

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. This means that the EEOC will accept claims brought by transgender individuals and can bring lawsuits against employers determined to have discriminated against transgender employees or applicants. 

Employers doing business on a national or regional scale should review all state and local provisions. Employers may have to make accommodations to their dress and appearance policies for employees in transition or those choosing to express themselves as the opposite gender.

Health and safety issues

In some industries such as health care, hospitality, manufacturing and corrections, employers must enforce guidelines designed to protect employees or others from injury. These guidelines often include restrictions related to dress and appearance. HR professionals may be required to enforce such restrictions and may have to deny requests for exemptions from such policies.

Some requested exemptions may stem from employees' need to wear certain religious garb. For example, three Muslim women employed in a prison requested accommodation to wear head coverings at work but were denied an exemption on safety grounds when the prison successfully argued that the head coverings posed hazards because an inmate could use them to strangle the employees, the coverings could make it difficult to identify employees, or they could be used to hide contraband. Also see the section below on religious expression.

Appearance and race

Grooming and appearance standards that contain prohibitions against certain hairstyles or beards or that treat traditional ethnic dress differently from other attire may also result in race discrimination allegations. Policies should be "neutral" and used "evenhandedly," according to the Race & Color Discrimination section of the EEOC Compliance Manual.

For example, although employers can generally require employees to be clean-shaven, Title VII requires exceptions for men who have a condition in which shaving causes inflammation—a condition that occurs primarily in black men. The EEOC provides another example: Employers can require employees to have neatly groomed hair, but such rules must "respect racial differences in hair texture" and cannot, for instance, prohibit black women from wearing their hair in a natural Afro style. The EEOC recommends that to minimize the likelihood of discrimination claims, employers should make sure grooming standards are race-neutral, adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons and consistently applied.

Religious expression

Employers must be prepared to make exceptions to dress codes when an employee has a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with the rules and when no undue hardship for the employer (such as a serious safety problem) would exist as a result of the exception. The Religious Discrimination section in the EEOC Compliance Manual notes that religious grooming practices may relate to shaving or hair length and that religious dress may include clothes, head or face coverings, jewelry, or other items. See Religion and Work: 'A Hot Topic and Getting Hotter Every Day'.

Determining if a religious belief exemption is legitimate may involve discussion between the employer and the employee. The question of whether a particular belief is or is not religious in nature is one that employers typically will not want to address. In some situations, though, the employer may reasonably question either the sincerity of the particular belief or whether it is in fact religious in nature. In such cases, the employer would be justified in seeking additional information from the employee.

HR can prohibit body piercings and tattoos as long as it does so evenhandedly. Religious issues arise only if an employee asserts a religious basis for such piercing or tattoos. In that case, the employer will have to determine whether the request for an exception is based on a sincerely held religious belief and, if so, whether allowing an exception will create an undue hardship. If tattoos or piercings are not worn due to religious reasons (or another protected class reason), employers can deny the exception request. See What Are an Applicant's Tattoos Telling Potential Employers? and Can employers have dress code requirements that prohibit all tattoos and piercings?

In workplaces where employers require uniforms, employers must still make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs. Cases involving uniform modifications have covered issues such as allowing Sikh men to wear turbans, permitting Muslim men to wear skullcaps, and allowing skirts or culottes for women whose faiths prohibit them from wearing pants.

Uniforms

Uniforms represent a more restrictive type of dress code. They are sometimes required by law, by the nature of the business or by an employer's preference. In certain industries or professions—health care, hospitality or law enforcement, for example—employers commonly require uniforms. Uniforms may include specific items (medical scrubs, firefighter gear) or standardized colors and types of garments (black pants and white shirt).

Pros and cons

Reasons why an employer may want to require uniforms include:

  • Safety. Some positions may need or require protective gear to be worn (e.g., fire-resistant jacket, steel-toed shoes).
  • Branding. Some employers want to present a specific image to the public. Uniforms can help create that image and provide advertising for the business.
  • Appropriateness. Uniforms reduce the chances of inappropriate dress in the workplace because employees have fewer opportunities to misinterpret attire guidelines.
  • Productivity. When all employees (including senior managers) wear a uniform, everyone is perceived as equal. An employee will focus less on who is wearing designer clothes and more on being productive.

Requiring uniforms can also have some disadvantages. For one thing, employees might resist wearing them. For another, if customers or clients perceive the uniforms as inappropriate, the result can be negative feedback. Moreover, if uniforms are not well-thought-out, they can hinder performance; for example, a bartender uniform with long, oversized sleeves could hinder the preparation of drinks.

Who pays for uniforms?

When employers require uniforms, many organizations assume that they may charge employees for the uniforms; however, employers should review both state and federal laws first. On the federal level, the Fair Labor Standards Act allows for the deduction from wages for uniforms as long as the deduction does not bring the employee's hourly pay or overtime pay for the workweek below the minimum wage. If an employee makes minimum wage, no deductions may be made for uniforms at all because that automatically would take the worker below the minimum wage.

In addition, if a uniform for a worker earning minimum wage requires special cleaning, the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division Field Operations Handbook states that employers must pay a uniform maintenance reimbursement, either by reimbursing the exact amount of cleaning or by providing the employee one additional hour of straight-time pay. Similarly, uniform allowances are not considered wages and cannot be used as credit toward meeting minimum-wage obligations.

Although most states simply reiterate the federal law in their provisions, several states have more-restrictive rules, even going so far as to prohibit employers from making employees pay for required uniforms. See U.S. DOL Fact Sheet #16: Deductions from Wages for Uniforms and Other Facilities Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Templates and Tools

Agencies and organizations

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

U.S. Department of Labor

Informational tools

EEOC: Prohibited Employment Policies/Practices

Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Race & Color Discrimination

JAN Hygiene Resources

Samples

Attire and Grooming Policy

Business Attire Policy

Fragrance Free Workplace Policy

Jewelry and Tattoo Policy

Summer Dress Policy

Uniforms Policy

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