Workplace Dress Codes, Grooming, & Appearance Policies: What is (and isn’t) Legally Compliant?

While dress codes have been implemented and enforced in the workplace for decades, there are legal limitations on what employers can actually require of their workers when it comes to appearance and grooming.

It is certainly not uncommon for companies to regulate how someone visually presents oneself at work. Dress codes, policies which ban visible piercings or tattoos, uniform requirements, and other grooming guidelines (i.e. insisting that male employees have short hair and clean-shaven faces, or requiring female employees to wear – or not wear — certain types of cosmetics or hairstyles) are familiar, although not always permissible, prerequisites in many workplaces.

Therefore, the question stands:  Is it legal for employers to uphold these policies? It turns out that certain grooming and dress regulations can cross over into a realm of unlawful discrimination.

Dress Code - Equality Graphic

Identifying Illegal Discrimination in the Workplace

Discriminating against any employee based on his or her race, national origin, color, gender, pregnancy status, genetic facts, disability, or age (if employee is 40 years of age or older) is prohibited under federal law. Moreover, certain states may even take this law a step further by including additional attributes such as sexual orientation or marital status.

Workplace discrimination laws are designed to prevent an active bias in all phases of employment from the first day on the job to the last; and do, in fact, include the type of policies which govern personal appearance, such as grooming and dress codes as well as uniform requirements.

Recognizing Policies which Discriminate

A dress or grooming rule that can be deemed as hostile to a shielded class of employees is classified as illegal. This applies whether or not the particular policy is openly discriminate or has an indirect bearing on one group of people. Some examples include:

1.  Shaving. A policy which states all employees must have clean-shaven faces may discriminate against workers whose religious convictions require them to wear beards. Such a policy may also show discrimination toward African Americans who are sometimes prone to a skin condition which causes shaving to be painful.

2.  Hair Length. Certain religious doctrines prohibit cutting of the hair; therefore, a policy that requires men to wear a short haircut can be discriminatory.

3.  Prohibiting piercings and tattoos. It was reported that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) initiated a claim on behalf of an employee who stated that his religious principles decreed it a sin for his tattoos (which depicted religious inscriptions) to be covered. Therefore, employees who fall into this category may have the right to a discrimination claim.

4.  Imposing different requirements for men and women. Providing that a dress or grooming code does not enforce more severe requirements for one gender, or demands that employees wear sexually provocative attire, then the policy is likely legal. On the other hand, if an employer imposed a dress or uniform code on only one gender, this may be a violation of discrimination law.

5.  Policies that create difficulty or discomfort for those with certain disabilities. It’s important to remember that it is legal for employers to require their employees – including those with disabilities – to follow a dress code or wear a uniform. One example is a professional business attire or uniform that is necessary for identification and/or safety purposes. Nevertheless, if an employee is disabled in a way that prevents them from complying with a dress code, the individual should be eligible for a practical accommodation. For instance, if an employee who uses a wheelchair would experience distress or discomfort from a particular type of clothing (such as a stiff uniform or business suit), the employer may have to agree to permit the employee to choose another type of clothing – perhaps in the same color or a similar style — which won’t produce the same obstacles.

Dress Code Laws - two employees

How Should Employees Handle Discriminatory Dress Code Policies?

If you have reason to believe that your place of employment is enforcing discriminatory dress and grooming policies, your very first step should be to speak with your employer. Case in point, if your religious affiliations prohibit you from cutting your hair, but your employer requires that all male employees maintain shorter hair, you should make this issue clear to your employer. At the same time, be ready to encounter certain objections on the part of your employer when it comes to the reasons for the particular policy. One common and valid example is safety. In this instance, you may agree to compromise and wear a hairnet. If neatness is a concern for your employer, perhaps you could offer to wear your hair tied back during working hours.

If you have found that your employer is resistant to accommodating your differences, it may be time to seek advice from a knowledgeable and qualified employment lawyer. An attorney in this field can review and carefully consider your employer’s dress code policies, ascertain whether it violates discrimination laws, and offer you details on how to protect your rights in the workplace.


Fred Coon, CEO

Stewart, Cooper & Coon offers Human Capital Strategy Serviceto both individuals and corporations. Our staff is dedicated to our clients’ success via innovative job search processes, employment management strategies, and state-of-the-art technologies. Contact Fred Coon – 866-883-4200, Ext. 200

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