Dress Codes: How Do I Prevent My Employees From Being Fashion Victims?

Beth Dean 05.09.18
140 Brewing Hipster Coffee

Can I make my employee remove his nose piercing? Can I make women wear skirts? What if my employee smells horrible? 

These and other questions frequently arise when companies are developing effective dress codes. Before imposing your fashion sense on your employees, be sure that your company’s dress code doesn’t potentially violate their Title VII rights and discriminate against protected groups of people. 

Here, Nextep answers some of your most common dress code questions.

Can my dress code forbid piercings and tattoos?

Company policies may forbid piercings and tattoos that may conflict with the company’s brand, impart offensive, hostile, or discriminatory messages, or create safety risks such as jewelry being caught in machinery. 

In certain cases, though, jewelry or tattoos may be a meaningful part of the employee’s cultural identity or religion. Prohibiting jewelry that is worn for religious reasons may be perceived as discrimination against an employee’s Title VII rights. 

Can my dress code require that females wear dresses, skirts, makeup, high heels, or other items typically worn by women?

Any company policy that requires an employee to subscribe to gender stereotypes, including stereotypes of how people think a woman or man should look or dress, may violate Title VII protections against discrimination based on gender. 

While companies may have specific standards that need to be addressed, a too-strict dress code can lead to decreased employee morale and even public ridicule. Wise employers will consider alternative policies that do not require specific articles of gender-specific clothing. An example may be a policy that requires a generally well-groomed and professional appearance for employees who are interacting with the public.  

Can I require my employees to have good hygiene? What if an employee complains about a coworker’s foul odor?

While your employee handbook can include a policy recommending good hygiene and cleanliness, Nextep recommends that you tread carefully in enforcing the policy for the following reasons:

  • An employee’s economic circumstances may prevent him or her from replacing worn or old clothing
  • An employee from another country may eat ethnic food that imparts certain body odors. Requiring that an employee stop eating ethnic food may violate Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin.
  • Certain medical conditions or disabilities may create body odors that are beyond the employee’s control. In this instance, employers may need to engage in an interactive process to determine the best reasonable accommodation in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Complaints should be taken seriously, though, as poor hygiene can create health risks and fragrances such as perfumes and candles can aggravate symptoms for employees suffering from asthma or allergies. Fragrance sensitivity may also require reasonable accommodation under the ADA, so refusing to address an employee’s complaints about a coworker or to create a fragrance-free zone could BOTH potentially violate rights. Solutions can include desk reassignment, ensuring good office ventilation, and possibly investing in air purifiers.

As with any dress code question, perceived violations to the policy should be taken on a case by case basis to determine whether the variation is protected by Title VII or would truly do harm to the company’s image or safety record. In all cases, employers should maintain discretion and sensitivity. 

For assistance in developing and enforcing dress code policies for your company, please contact Nextep’s HR Department.

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