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Dress for Success

How can I legally amend my company's dress code?

Back Web Only Jan 21, 2015 By Coral Henning

Since starting my business in 2010, my number of full-time employees has tripled. One thing I wish I’d done in the beginning is establish a dress code. Clients don’t often come into the office, but when they do I’m worried that the relaxed atmosphere I’ve allowed does not reflect the professional competency I’m trying to project. How can I implement a dress code, and should I be worried about violating any laws when I do?

Because dress and grooming policies have been at the center of many discrimination claims, you should carefully consider whether your business would benefit from implementing such a policy.

Some employers may believe that appearance requirements establish a tone for the office and communicate expectations about the work being done; other employers may feel that happy, comfortable workers are more productive and creative. Imagine a spectrum: artistic fields like fashion and advertising on one end, and more conservative fields like accounting and law on the opposite; most employers fall somewhere in between. The American Bar Association’s GP Solo magazine posits a counterargument to the notion of a dress code for tradition’s sake, saying, “An employer imposing a more conservative dress code is far less likely to recruit younger prospective employees — or even to keep the ones it has. An inability to recruit young talent can hurt the future of almost any commercial enterprise.”

So before embarking on the adoption of a dress code, consider your company: Is there a genuine business need, such as health, safety or professional image?

Reasonable requirements regarding an employee’s dress and appearance are generally lawful, but employers seeking to implement such requirements should educate themselves on applicable state and federal laws and, if necessary, consult legal counsel before drafting such a policy. There are many published cases from state and federal courts on the issue of employment discrimination in the form of dress or appearance requirements, and any employer considering such a step should become familiar with issues that are commonly litigated.

In California, both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (California Government Code §12940 et seq.) prohibit harassment and discrimination in employment on the basis of color, religion, race, gender and gender identity among other things. Under these laws, an employer cannot lawfully implement dress or grooming requirements that discriminate against employees. In addition, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation of their employees’ religious beliefs, unless doing so results in “undue hardship” to the employer [42 U.S. C. §2000e, subd. (j), California Gov. Code §12940, subd. (l)]. 

If you’re establishing a dress code or making changes to the code in the future, there are a few basic tenets you should follow. First, be clear and avoid ambiguous terms like “appropriate” unless you’re providing specific examples of what is and isn’t permitted. How can you expect your employees to know what is considered appropriate without guidelines? Second, try to match the appearance or dress requirements with the job at hand. Third, apply and enforce consistent and reasonable requirements among all employees, regardless of gender or gender affinity.

Essentially, no policy should distinguish between men and women. For example, Government Code §12947.5(a) makes it unlawful “for an employer to refuse to permit an employee to wear pants on account of the sex of the employee.” Some court decisions may interpret this statute in different ways, so be sure to conduct further research if necessary. And lastly, be willing to make accommodations for your employees when requested, unless they raise safety or health issues or cause significant hardship to the business. If this is a concern, consult an employment law attorney for advice.

There are online resources that provide more information about federal and state discrimination laws in the workplace as they relate to attire and grooming standards. For Title VII requirements, employers should review the Rights and Responsibilities section of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For California-specific laws, visit the Department of Fair Employment and Housing to learn more about FEHA. Nolo Press, a publisher of popular self-help materials, offers some background information and examples on the topic. You can also visit the Sacramento County Public Law Library for employment law resources with relevant statutes, case law, and sample dress and appearance policies.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email comstocks@saclaw.org

Comments

Deirdre Miller (not verified)January 21, 2015 - 12:05pm

Bart Miller from Tom James Company will come to your office for free and give a Dress for Success presentation to your employees. He can tailor the presentation as you wish; casual, gentlemen only, or business casual w suits as well!
He has been helping dress ladies & gentlemen in the Sacramento/Reno area for the past 15 years.
His email is b.miller@tomjames.com & to take a look at his company www.tomjames.com

Jasmine (not verified)June 13, 2016 - 5:21am

Great article...Dress code is important part of Office life...Will show it to my manager.

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