With summer upon us, this may be a good time to review your company’s dress and grooming policy. Each year about this time, a manager or two stops by my office to ask if shorts, cut-offs, flip flops, or other beach-appropriate clothing items are allowed. In some companies, informality is not only acceptable but actually encouraged. In others, strict guidelines apply. Whatever your organizational culture may dictate, consider the following legal implications of your dress code:

  • Employees with disabilities may be entitled to modification of the company dress and appearance policy as a reasonable accommodation. Consider the employee who needs to wear a certain type of shoe due to diabetes or who may be allergic to the fabric of the company uniform. Unless the modification creates an undue hardship to the company, the employer must allow such exceptions to its policy.
  • Policies that prohibit beards, traditional ethnic dress, and religious head coverings should be carefully evaluated to avoid race and religious discrimination claims. Absent safety considerations, tread carefully in this territory.
  • Provocative and otherwise inappropriate attire should be specifically prohibited to reduce sexual harassment claims.
  • If uniforms are required, employers must reasonably accommodate religious beliefs that would involve modification of the uniforms. The same is true if body piercings or tattoos are part of an employee’s sincerely held religious belief.
  • Overly burdensome requirements based on gender stereotypes may be challenged. Consider instead a dress and appearance policy that is general to both genders rather than specific to each.
  • Although grooming and hygiene standards may be important components of your policy, keep in mind that enforcing these standards should be done with care. Some employees may have medical conditions that cause body odor. Some employees may be allergic to fragrances. Engage in interactive and confidential communication with your employees when such issues arise.

With these and related issues, don’t hesitate to obtain legal counsel when balancing employer and employee rights. One of the biggest mistakes employers make is unfailing enforcement of a dress and grooming policy without accommodation when appropriately requested. Likewise, you don’t have to give in to unreasonable demands. Know your rights and obligations.

Perhaps more important than any one specific policy are the ultimate goals of a dress and grooming standard in your organization. Do your employees present a professional image to your customers? Are safety and comfort considered when formalizing your dress and grooming policies? Can distraction be minimized by clear guidelines understood by all?

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