Dress Codes — Policies Can Expose You to Liabilities
Danny Detailer wants his staff to project an appropriate image for the kind of customers that patronize his detail business. “Employees have to look the part; we are selling clean,” he explains. “They have to inspire customers by both their detail knowledge and how they look and present themselves.”
The laws governing appearance and dress codes are tricky, so you want to hire people who want to look good. You can identify these individuals in the first interview. Tell-ing employees that their appearance needs to project a desired image is legal under state and federal laws, but employment law attorneys warn that employers must be careful.
State and federal laws allow employers to have employee appearance policies in order to project a particular image to the customer, no problem. However, appearance policies can be a minefield for an employer.
In general, appearance policies must be reasonable and evenly applied to all employees. They must reflect actual job duties, and provide exceptions, say, for strongly held religious beliefs.
Be certain that your policies are clear, and that you understand the negative impact they can have on protected employees. You will have problems if you fail to review how your policies reflect state and federal laws and any recent court rulings.
Keep in mind that policies need to be applied equally to all employees, especially those that have specific statutory protection under federal laws: race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, and disability. In addition, a few states grant “protected-class status” to employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
In a key case of gender discrimination in which appearance played a part, a federal court ruled that United Airlines could not accept male flight attendants with large bodies, while not accepting women with anything larger than medium builds. The policy simply was not applied equitably among males and females, violating federal discrimination laws.
It is important to make sure appearance policies are not “dissimilarly burdensome” with respect to any of the protected categories. Dress codes, for example, should not include any requirements that could be perceived as “more burdensome” for men than women.
Another guideline to consider is that policies can be legal in some cases — even if in conflict with preferences of protected classes — but only if they are justified by real requirements of the job functions.
Recent court decisions demonstrate that employers need to be particularly careful about religious discrimination as they set appearance-related policies. For example, a Virginia company was charged with illegally discrimination by declining to hire a Rastafarian who refused to cut his dreadlocks. It was claimed the action violated federal civil rights law, which requires employers to attempt to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs — as long as the accommodation poses no undue hardship.
Bottom line: You have to be certain that your dress code does not discriminate against someone’s religious practices.
As far as religion-related clothing and grooming issues are concerned, employers should provide reasonable accommodations to employee requests. Employers reviewing dress and grooming policies would be wise to consider all the scenarios under which they could be perceived as discriminating against any of the protected classes.
As with any other decision about a person’s employment, employers should document instances of dress-code violations before taking disciplinary action or terminating employment.
I am not an attorney, and certainly not an expert in this field. I am only passing along basic information so that you can check the laws pertaining to appearance and dress codes in your state.
Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at firstname.lastname@example.org.