Workplace Dress Code: A Delicate Balance

When it comes to workplace dress standards you can be formal or casual depending on your organization’s personality. “In general, an employer may establish a dress code which applies to all employees or employees within certain job categories,” according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The two key takeaways from this statement:

1. It’s okay to have different dress codes for different departments.

2. The policy must be administered consistently.

Naturally, there are exceptions to the EEOC’s dress code statement.

Staying on Track

Keeping an EEOC-compliant dress code on track begins with deciding whether a dress code is needed in the first place. It’s not always necessary. Make sure there is sufficient buy-in to having a dress code from the key decision-makers in your organization.

Still, it’s generally helpful to have a basic policy in your employee handbook to point to if a problem arises down the road. However, giving it great emphasis in the absence of any violations could trigger needless employee resentment.

Also, making a dress code too prescriptive (for example, setting a knee-length limit on dresses and skirts) may put you in a box. That’s because it robs you and supervisors of the ability to exercise discretion. Also, an overly nitpicking policy can place you in the undesirable position of monitoring compliance in ways that might waste time and seem degrading to employees — like measuring skirt length with a ruler.

Finally, it’s critical that support for enforcing the policy, whether detailed or general, is both strong and visible to employees. If employees who are inclined to step over the line believe the policy won’t be upheld, they’re likely to violate it and it could be seen by others as a sham.

Religion and Dress

The basic way you can get into legal trouble with a dress code (besides inconsistent enforcement) is if it violates employee religious beliefs or ethnic traditions. You aren’t required to make exceptions based on ethnic dress, but, as the EEOC articulates the rules, “a dress code must not treat some employees less favorably [than others] because of their national origin.”

Here’s an EEOC example: “A dress code that prohibits certain kinds of ethnic dress, such as traditional African or East Indian attire, but otherwise permits casual dress, would treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin.”

The EEOC adds: “An employer may require all workers to follow a uniform dress code even if the dress code conflicts with some workers’ ethnic beliefs or practices. However, if the dress code conflicts with religious practices, the employer must modify the dress code unless doing so would result in undue hardship.”

Undue Hardship?

So the issue becomes the standard for “undue hardship.” This is a general statement from the EEOC on the matter: “Some courts have concluded that it would pose an undue hardship if an employer was required to accommodate a religious dress or grooming practice that conflicts with the public image the employer wishes to convey to customers.”

While acknowledging that may be true in some cases, “an employer’s reliance on the broad rubric of ‘image’ to deny a requested religious accommodation may amount to relying on customer religious bias, [sometimes called ‘customer preference’] in violation of [the Civil Rights Act].” The EEOC has taken the view that blanket bans on head scarves traditionally worn by Muslim women come under that heading, as well as beard-length limits affecting Muslim men.

In one case, an employer settled a case with the EEOC that involved employees wearing a certain color shirt on Fridays to show support for the U.S. military. A Jehovah’s Witness employee objected because he felt his religion didn’t allow him to express opinions about government matters, including military affairs. Despite this, the employee was reprimanded for not complying with the Friday dress code and was eventually fired. The employer paid $21,500 to the former employee to settle the religious discrimination lawsuit.

In addition to accommodating religious beliefs and national origin practices, if an employee requests an accommodation to the dress code because of his or her disability, the employer must modify the dress code unless doing so results in undue hardship.

The bottom line: Have your HR advisor and employment attorney review any new dress code provisions you’re thinking of putting in place.