You can be formal or casual in workplace dress standards depending on the personality of the organization. “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 that statement:
- It’s okay to have different dress codes for different departments.
- The policy must be administered consistently.
Dress Code Example Highlights
Following is an excerpt of a specimen dress code provided to the public by the Society for Human Resource Management. This dress code highlights management’s prerogatives in determining whether clothing is suitable or not:
Basic elements for appropriate and professional business attire include socks or stockings and clothing that is in neat and clean condition. Basic guidelines for appropriate workplace dress do not include tight or short pants, tank tops, halter tops, low-cut blouses or sweaters, or any extreme style or fashion in dress, footwear, accessories, fragrances or hair.
Although it is impossible and undesirable to establish an absolute dress and appearance code, [Company Name] will apply a reasonable and professional workplace standard to individuals on a case-by-case basis. Management may make exceptions for special occasions or in the case of inclement weather, at which time employees will be notified in advance. An employee unsure of what is appropriate should check with his or her manager or supervisor.
If a supervisor or manager decides that an employee’s dress or appearance is not appropriate as outlined in this policy, he or she may take corrective action and require the employee to leave the work area and make the necessary changes to comply with the policy.
Naturally there are exceptions to the EEOC’s dress code statement. Before getting into those exceptions — which, these days, may be the stuff of headlines and lawsuits — it’s important to consider how to keep an EEOC-compliant dress code on the straight and narrow path.
Staying on Track
That begins with deciding whether a dress code is needed in the first place. That is not always the case. Make sure there is sufficient buy-in to having a dress code from the key decision-makers in the organization.
Still, it’s generally helpful to have a basic policy in your employee handbook to dust off should a problem arise 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, overly nitpicking policies can place you in the undesirable position of monitoring compliance in ways that might seem degrading to employees — like measuring skirt length with a ruler — and that waste valuable time.
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 are likely to violate it and it will 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 are not 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.”
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.”
Regarding permissible religion-based dress code exceptions, the EEOC states: “If the dress code conflicts with an employee’s religious practices and the employee requests an accommodation, the employer must modify the dress code or permit an exception to the dress code unless doing so would result in undue hardship.” In other words, it’s a similar principle to accommodating an employee with disabilities.
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.
The bottom line: Have an HR professional and employment attorney review any new dress code provisions you are thinking of putting in place if you believe you’re getting into a murky area of the law.