Employee dress codes are usually well intentioned. They are often meant to promote harmony among employees as well as to promote a certain appearance for the company. Sometimes, however, a company’s dress code ends up treating people unequally. When it does, it could open your company up to discrimination lawsuits.
According to the EEOC, companies are generally free to have reasonable dress codes and appearance standards. The main areas where discrimination claims may arise are when the dress code impacts religion, national origin or disability.
You have probably heard some stories of when dress codes have conflicted with people’s religious practices and beliefs. For example, certain Muslim women may wish to wear head coverings at work, while a dress code may discourage that in some way. Or, a dress code may call for men to be clean shaven, but members of the Sikh faith, for example, are religiously barred from shaving.
Similar issues can arise when a dress code appears to limit wearing so-called “ethnic dress” but allows other forms of casual apparel. This could be seen as treating clothing from certain cultures less favorably than others when there is no purely job-based reason for the treatment.
In the disability sphere, you may find that some employees with disabilities are unable to comply with the dress code for practical reasons. For example, a person with a disability may have trouble lacing shoes, making a company’s requirement of dress shoes difficult to comply with. Similarly, people in wheelchairs may not find it practical to wear dresses or skirts.
Reasonable accommodations are generally required
When your company has a dress code, think carefully about what workplace needs you are trying to fulfill. In many cases, you may find that granting an exception or exemption from the dress code is easy enough to do.
In fact, you may have to rethink your dress code or grant reasonable accommodations from it if an employee comes to you with a complaint that the code is in conflict with their religious, ethnic or disability needs. In general, companies are required to provide these types of accommodations when they would not create an “undue hardship” for the company. Undue hardship translates essentially to “significant difficulty or expense.”
If an employee comes forward with a challenge to your company dress code, hear them out. Generally, grant the accommodation or exception they request unless it would create an undue hardship for your organization. If it would create such a hardship, explain why and try to come up with an accommodation that would work for all involved.
If you have questions about your dress code options, discuss them with an experienced employment law attorney.