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Be careful when crafting a workplace dress code

On Behalf of | Mar 3, 2023 | Employer Defense

Your business is permitted to institute a dress code in the workplace. You could even mandate that your employees have to wear a specific uniform. They may not be in favor of this approach, but you’re not breaking the law if you do either of these things. Workplaces are not required to have uniforms or dress codes, but they are also not prohibited from mandating them.

That being said, there are some ways in which dress codes can prove to be problematic. The literal wording and/or practical effects of these policies may even lead to allegations of discrimination or harassment. As a result, you’ll want to be careful when setting one up and enforcing it so that you minimize your company’s risk of being accused of wrongdoing.

A dress code must apply to everyone in the same way

A lawful dress code needs to apply in a uniform manner to everyone. It cannot exclude certain individuals, nor can it be designed specifically to target certain employees for reasons unrelated to work requirements. If everyone is required to follow the same regulations, a dress code is generally permissible.

However, even in some situations where a dress code applies uniformly to everyone, it can still be argued that it applies to a different degree to a certain group. If it is discriminatory in practice, even if this discrimination occurs accidentally, your company could be vulnerable to accusations of engaging in unlawful conduct.

For example, there may be workers who are members of the same protected class, such as those who are part of the same religion or come from the same ethnic background. It is illegal to discriminate on these grounds under both federal law and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

Workers who are members of protected classes may have a certain preferred style of dress – such as religious adornments or headwear. An example could be the head coverings often worn by members of the Islamic faith. If your dress code says that workers are not allowed to wear hats or any other type of headwear, this prohibition does apply to all workers uniformly. But while most workers simply need to refrain from headwear worn solely for fashion, workers within a protected class who are prohibited from wearing headwear may be compromising a core expression of their faith in abiding by your company’s policy. Thus, even though this dress code provision applies uniformly to everyone, it is still discriminatory because it impacts religious workers to a greater degree.

What are your options?

The best thing to do is to work with a legal professional to set up a dress code that is not going to violate anyone’s rights. If you do find yourself facing allegations, be sure you know about all of your legal options so that you can make informed decisions as your company contemplates how it is going to respond.