Who Decides What Your Employees Can and Cannot Wear?


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Looks may not be everything, but when it comes to presenting a positive image of your company, good grooming is high on the list. People may disagree on the definition of good grooming, but as the boss, it’s your choice. However, these days, more and more employees are willing to challenge your right to tell them how to look at work. So while you still get to call the shots, there’s always a watchdog on duty, in this case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Here are some guidelines for developing your dress code, which should keep you from running afoul of the EEOC.

Whatever policy you set, it has to have a valid, defensible business purpose. What’s “valid?” Examples include, among other things, health and safety standards, easy identification of employees, or the establishment of professionalism as you deem appropriate.

Keep your dress code simple. The more details you add, the more you invite challenges.\

The policy must be in writing, preferably in your employee handbook, and should include a clear consequence for violation. Have every employee read and sign a copy of the policy, and ensure that a signed copy goes in each personnel file.

According to the EEOC, the policy should not place a harsher burden on any one group over the others, based on race, religion, gender, color, age, or national origin. Example: don’t require female managers to wear suits while allowing male managers to wear jeans and t-shirts.

Be willing to make accommodations when necessary. Example: You may have a policy prohibiting facial hair. However, certain race-related skin conditions make it painful and possibly unhealthy for some men to shave regularly. Your willingness to accommodate such situations is often the key to staying out of hot water.

Whatever rules you set, enforce them evenly.

Religious Issues

Religious rights are an increasingly touchy issue, so again, be willing to listen and bend where necessary. Take a look at these two actual court cases, which had very different outcomes.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some employers added policies which prohibited the wearing of head scarves. When one employee refused to remove her scarf for religious reasons, she was fired for noncompliance. The EEOC investigated and found in favor of the employee, stating her religious rights had been violated.

Why? The company could cite no valid business purpose for its policy, and made no effort to accommodate the employee’s religion. (EEOC v Alamo Rent-a-Car, LLC).

In another case, a major retailer fired a clerk who refused to remove an eyebrow ring, in spite of a storewide policy prohibiting facial and tongue jewelry. The employee stated this policy violated her religious rights because, she said, body piercing was a requirement of her religion. During mediation with the EEOC, the employer offered various accommodations, (such as allowing her to wear a clear retainer in place of the ring while at work), all of which the clerk rejected.

The EEOC supported her claim, but when the employer took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, the tide reversed. The Appeals Court noted the retailer’s efforts to accommodate the employee, and confirmed the employer had a valid business purpose for the policy, which was to establish their concept of professionalism. (Clouthier V. Costco Wholesale Corp.)

Navigating the waters of employee relations seems increasingly tricky. But even in this litigious society, employers can set reasonable policies and expect employees to comply. Safe navigation depends on a few simple points: have a legitimate, defensible business purpose; avoid favoritism of one group over another; enforce the rules evenly; and be flexible where necessary.

Teresa Ambord

Posted In: Management

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