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 firstname.lastname@example.org
“We have a male employee whose shirt buttons pop open, leaving his skin exposed. We also have a female employee whose tight clothing reveals her undergarments. This is a horribly awkward and uncomfortable situation, but their attire is not appropriate for the office. How should HR address this?”
You know That Guy. He wears too much Axe body spray, he makes loud personal calls while you’re trying to work, he chews food with his mouth open. He’s a close-talker with his shirt open one button too far. He’s also really good at his job. If you’re a manager, what do you do with That Guy?
Etiquette programs throughout Northern California cover everything you need to know, from effective communication to dining with chopsticks. Schools offer customized workshops for organizations and individuals alike.
I run a small business. Twice in the past two years, I’ve had employees quit directly after taking maternity leave. Prior to their departures, it was understood that they would return to work. This has caused understandable upheaval in the office. What questions, if any, can I ask employees taking maternity or paternity leave? Can I require them to come back to work in order to take the leave? Are there any options for me to avoid this happening in the future?