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Fashion Rules at Work

“It’s a new era in fashion – there are no rules,” fashion experts have proclaimed. Want to wear white before Memorial Day? Go for it. Want to wear gold and silver jewelry at the same time? You can do that, too. Today it’s all about the individual and his or her personal style.

While that’s a relief for some (I do like to wear my white jeans all year long), it can present a problem for employers whose employees’ personal style looks like they have just rolled out of bed.

Differences in opinion between employers and employees on what constitutes appropriate workplace attire have inspired lots of employers to create company dress and grooming standards. May employers legally enforce their personal dress and grooming standards on their employees? If those standards are reasonable, the answer generally is “yes.”

State and federal laws say that it’s reasonable for employers to request that employees dress professionally (for example, no mini-skirts or low-cut blouses), present a neat appearance (no ripped or wrinkled clothing), and have good hygiene (washed hair and no body odor).

It’s also reasonable for employers to require most employees to have natural-looking hair color and hairstyles, to cover tattoos, and to remove jewelry from places such as noses, lips, and eyebrows.

Additionally, employers may generally have a different standard for women and men (for example, women are allowed to have long hair while men aren’t and women may wear earrings while men may not).
Employers must proceed very cautiously here though because they run into trouble if the standard is not based on social norms, it differs greatly between the sexes, or it imposes a greater burden on one sex than the other.

Dress and grooming standards are generally not reasonable when they prevent employees from:
– Complying with their religious beliefs or practices (such as wearing skull-caps or beards),
– Dressing in their traditional national attire (such as African or East Indian),
– Dressing consistently with their gender identity, or
– Dressing comfortably because of having a disability.

In the above cases, employers are required to provide employees with an accommodation unless it presents an undue hardship on the employer. Failure to do so could result in a discrimination claim against the employer.

And, the National Labor Relations Board, the independent federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions, has determined that dress codes that restrict employees from wearing clothing and accessories that express their feelings about their employment are illegal.

So, employers thinking they’d like to implement a dress and grooming policy should obviously proceed with care. Here are some tips to help in that effort (not to be construed as legal advice):
• Have good business reasons for your policy (such as maintaining the company image, safety, etc.) and explain the reasons in your policy.
• Provide clear expectations by specifically identifying what is not considered to be professional attire (T-shirts, jeans, flip-flops, etc.)
• Explain what will happen if employees do not comply with the policy (which is usually that employees will be sent home to change without pay. Note: employers may only dock the wages of hourly employees).
• Have employees sign an acknowledgement form that they understand and will comply with the policy. The form then goes in their personnel file in case they later claim they didn’t know what was expected of them.
• Apply the policy consistently, except for those cases where accommodations must be made.

A carefully drafted dress and grooming policy can help get everyone on the same page as to what professionalism looks like at work. Just because society supposedly no longer has fashion rules doesn’t mean that employers must follow suit.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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