IMAGE ISSUES? A PROPER DRESS CODE CAN FIX THAT.

Did you know that 98% of your clientele will judge the reliability and strength of your business based upon the appearance of the first employee with whom they interact?  Probably not, because I just made that up, but what if they did? 

Company dress codes are often treated like an afterthought rather than as a policy which should be thoughtfully drafted, timely updated, thoroughly explained, and seriously enforced.  Many employers don’t think about them until faced with an employee who is inappropriately attired, and then they discover that their policy doesn’t cover the specific situation, or that it’s simply never been enforced.  Admittedly, sitting down with an employee to discuss their fashion sense or personal hygiene is an uncomfortable scenario for any manager.  However, a properly drafted and circulated dress code can ease that situation. 

As a general proposition, employers can require employees to abide by set standards for their workplace attire, and employers have many reasons for such standards.  For instance, employers may wish to establish a desired public image, to ensure workplace safety, or to promote worker productivity and morale.  No dress code is a one-size-fits-all, however, and you should not assume that one standard is sufficient throughout your organization.  For example, a business may have employees who work in manufacturing a product, employees who run the office, and employees who conduct outside sales of the product.  In each of those areas, an employer may have different employee dress expectations.  Manufacturing employees typically require special safety gear, like steel-toed shoes, gloves, or protective glasses.  They may be at risk for injury if they wear long necklaces or bracelets while at work.  Outside sales personnel are typically the face of the company and require a more professional appearance.  Office staff may be in a better position to wear casual clothing while they work, but when office or sales staff enters the manufacturing area, additional dress codes may apply to them.   

As you do with other workplace policies, try to provide specific guidance to your employees.  “Business casual” and “inappropriate attire” do not have set definitions which are understood by all.  Give examples: “Clothing appropriate for yard work or exercise is not appropriate professional attire.”  Additionally, be specific: “Skirts need to fall no shorter than two inches above the knee.”  Don’t forget to address accessories and grooming: “Employees are expected to maintain good personal hygiene” and “No one may wear necklaces on the operating floor.”  Finally, address your specific business needs: “Employees must wear an employer-provided name tag while at work.”  

The policy should further state that it is not all-inclusive and will be reviewed periodically to keep it up-to-date.  It should also identify an individual (e.g., supervisor) or group of individuals (e.g., human resources) to whom questions may be directed on the appropriateness of attire.  Don’t forget to warn that disciplinary action may result for violation of the policy.  

Once the policy is in place, you must train your employees on the policy if you intend to enforce it.  Consider having employees sign an acknowledgement that they have read and understood the dress code policy as you do with other policies.  Further, when addressing a grooming issue with an employee, do so in a non-judgmental manner.  Use the policy to describe factually the distinction between what the employee is wearing and what the policy permits.            

Of course, when drafting and enforcing dress codes, remember that certain laws may apply.  Religious requirements, cultural practices, and certain disabilities may require an employer to explore whether an accommodation – including an exception to the dress code – is necessary to avoid violating anti-discrimination laws.  You may want to consider adding a procedure for requesting an exception or accommodation in your policy.  

Gender discrimination may also be an issue – and one more difficult to spot.  While men and women may have some different grooming standards, you must make sure the policy is applied evenly and accurately.  For example, if your policy prohibits ponytails and earrings, but the policy is only enforced against males, it may be found to be discriminatory.  On the other side of the coin, requiring women to wear skirts could also be found to constitute gender discrimination. 

The risks don’t stop there.  If an employer is not careful in how it addresses a dress code violation or in how it communicates the dress code, sexual harassment claims may be brought.  Additionally, an employer may face an unfair labor practice charge if it enforces a dress code that interferes with the exercise of Section 7 rights under the NLRA.  This may occur when an employer prohibits slogans or other expressions on articles of clothing.  

Do you have any suggestions on dealing with employee attire/grooming issues?  Do you have any creative accommodations which met both the employer’s needs and the employee’s protected concern that you can share?  If so, I’d love to hear your views.

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
 
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