Ah, the dress company dress code. I wouldn’t be overstating it if I said it strikes fear in the hearts of employers everywhere.
On the surface, it seems like an easy enough thing – wear proper attire when you are going to work. Simple, right?
Well, not quite so simple. What is proper, and how do you explain it, and how do you sidestep the potential issues that could come with it.
What issues you say – well, in no particular order, the crown act, gender discrimination, religious and/or ethnic accommodation considerations, conflict of interest issues, and just plain old bad taste.
In fact, right about now you might be thinking – do I even need a dress code for my business, or can I do without one. Well, in a perfect world – sure. But we are rarely in a perfect world. And the day one of your employees wears riding pants to work, you are going to want to say something to them. But without any type of specific guideline, that conversation may not have much to stand on.
OK, back to the potential issues – let’s tackle them one at a time.
First up, let’s talk about hair. Oh yeah, hair is a really big thing. That’s because what was considered quote ‘professional’ and quote ‘unprofessional’ has really changed over the years. With the acknowledgement of different needs and preferences related to hair texture, ethnic background and other factors – styles that might have caused a raised eyebrow in years gone by, have simply become the norm. And beyond that – with many states enacting Crown Acts, employees wearing those styles have become legally protected.
So, to put it in a phrase – let your employee’s hair flag fly.
Next up – gender discrimination issues. Your dress code can’t discriminate against someone simply because of their gender. So no, women must wear dresses or skirts – or men may not wear nail polish. These type of policies wander so easily into discrimination territory because we, as employers, can’t force employees to conform or identify with a certain gender associated with their sex – it could violate the employee’s rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. And beyond that – so many states have put specific protections in place – it’s just best that you stick with gender neutral dress policies.
“…one of your employees wears riding pants to work, you are going to want to say something to them. But without any type of specific guideline, that conversation may not have much to stand on.“
Now the issue of religious and or ethnic accommodation is fairly straight forward. Someone may need to wear an article of clothing, or not, because of religious or ethnic considerations. Think the Abercrombe and Fitch lawsuit with the Muslim woman who wore a hijab or head scarf. They said the scarf clashed with their dress code which called for a ‘classic East Coast collegiate style’ (I won’t even talk about all the things that are wrong with that statement). In any event, they lost.
So, keep those possible extenuating circumstances in mind before you include things like, being clean shaven, or requiring an article of faith to be covered. If your requirement isn’t based in workplace safety, security or health concerns – then you might have really thin ice to stand on.
You probably noticed that I included conflict of interest in the earlier list. That’s because, it’s perfectly fair if you don’t want your employee’s wearing the competitions logos at your place of business. But a word of warning, be specific here, because banning all types of logos, saying etc. could also be problematic.
Fred Meyer, the supermarket chain based in Portland, Oregon had a dress code that prohibited unauthorized buttons and logos. But in practice they had exceptions for certain holidays, sponsored events, sports gear on game days and LGBTQ related buttons during Pride Month.
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But, in the summer of 2020, when employees wore Black Lives Matter slogans and buttons were disciplined for doing so – the supermarket chain was hit with a judicial ruling that required them to revise the dress code policy, offer back pay to workers who were sent home and delete all discipline references from the personnel records.
Now, in this situation the outcome turned on two main things – the employee’s labor union said the company was interfering with the employee’s right to address terms and conditions of employment; and two, application of the policy wasn’t consistent. And that inconsistency basically watered down the policy so that it had null effect.
You see, consistency is everything. It’s all about what you do when you see someone wearing something that is not appropriate for your business. You must be quick and consistent in dealing with the issue. Have their manager, or other appropriate person, speak with the employee.
They will either need to immediately alter their clothing so that it meets the dress code expectations, or they should be sent home to change. And don’t be wishy washy with when and how you deal with the person. Have standards, and everyone has to meet the standards, every time.
Because, talk about discrimination – you might have a perfectly acceptable dress code policy, but you apply corrective feedback differently for different people and – there you are…..possible discriminatory behavior.
No I don’t know what to say about bad taste, or vulgar clothing. You absolutely don’t have to, and shouldn’t allow it. So when you see it – send them home. Just be consistent about it.