Are Your Dress Code and Grooming Policies Up to Date?

February 22, 2024
Inside HR
HR Compliance
Read time: 5 mins

Employers commonly use dress codes and grooming standards to communicate their expectations regarding acceptable work attire and grooming in the workplace, thereby setting requirements relating to the image employees project to customers. Whether a company’s policy is dress-for-your-day, informal, or more formal, or uniforms are required, understanding the landscape related to these policies is important in developing and implementing related policies.

Although most companies are not required to have dress codes and grooming policies, those that do should be aware that these policies must meet the requirements of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, state civil rights laws, and other related state laws, such the recent enactment of Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair “CROWN” Acts in several jurisdictions. Under these laws, employers may not discriminate in the terms and conditions of employment, including dress codes and grooming policies, and cannot impose policies that result in discrimination based on a protected class or create a higher burden on one gender over the other. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees and prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, religion, sex, including gender identity and sexual orientation, and national origin. State laws may mirror these protections or extend additional protections to other categories.

Dress Codes

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) guidance related to dress codes instructs employers that they may establish a dress code that applies to all employees or to differing policies for employees within given job categories. For example, an employer may have different policies for employees working on a production floor who must wear certain safety items from those performing office work. However, any dress code policy must not treat some employees less favorably because of their gender, race, religious beliefs, or any other protected class, and employers are advised to apply dress code and grooming requirements in a gender-neutral manner.

The EEOC’s guidance also establishes that a person dressing in the clothing associated with their gender identity must be treated in a manner that does not discriminate, stating:

"As a general matter, an employer covered by Title VII is not allowed to fire, refuse to hire, or take assignments away from someone (or discriminate in any other way) because customers or clients would prefer to work with people who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Employers also are not allowed to segregate employees based on actual or perceived customer preferences. (For example, it would be discriminatory to keep LGBTQ+ employees out of public-facing positions, or to direct these employees toward certain stores or geographic areas.) Prohibiting a transgender person from dressing or presenting consistent with that person’s gender identity would constitute sex discrimination."

Employers must also be cognizant that modification to dress codes and grooming policies may be needed as part of the process related to disability or religious accommodation.

Political Statements

Several years ago, Starbucks found themselves in the news for stating they supported the movement but refusing to allow their baristas to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts, pins, or other items, alleging doing so created a political statement and could incite violence. When employees pointed out that the company supported the LGBTQ+ movement and allowed the wearing of garb that supported the movement, the company eventually modified its stance. It allowed employees to wear approved clothing provided by the company.

With the 2024 election year likely to be a year where politics will be divisive, employers should review their policies to ensure they reflect the organization’s philosophy related to wearing clothing or accessories that make a political statement.

Union Insignias

In most circumstances, the National Labor Relations Board has upheld the right of workers to wear clothing or other items bearing a union insignia. Employers attempting to limit this ability may find themselves violating the National Labor Relations Act. As with other dress codes and grooming policies, this item's prohibition for safety reasons may create a safe harbor. Questions on whether a prohibition would be defensible should be directed to your legal counsel.

Grooming Policies

Like dress code policies, grooming standards help employers ensure their employees present a clean and neat appearance. There are also practical reasons for specific standards, such as the requirement to wear beard guards or hairnets in the food industry.

Grooming standards can also regulate visible body piercings, tattoos, and other items that impact a worker’s appearance. As with dress code standards, accommodation must be considered for employees requesting a modification for reasons related to religion or a disability. If an employer can show that a request for accommodation would result in undue hardship, the employer may require the employee to abide by the grooming standards.

With the recent passage of the CROWN Act in many states, including Illinois and Minnesota, employers’ policies cannot prohibit hairstyles that are based on "protective hairstyles," including styles historically related to national origin and/or race. Examples of protected hairstyles include, but are not limited to, afros, braids, twists, cornrows, dreadlocks, and other hairstyles or natural hair types historically associated with race.

Grooming policies commonly address several other issues. Two of the most common are fragrances and body odor. Employers may restrict the use of fragrances in the workplace as many employees are sensitive or allergic to the ingredients. Body odor can be a difficult issue to address with an employee. Still, employers should talk with the employee to ensure there is not an underlying medical reason causing the odor.

Potential Issues with Dress Codes and Grooming Standards

Dress codes and grooming standards that are reasonable, applied fairly and consistently, and business-related are generally acceptable. Training managers and supervisors on how to best apply these policies to ensure they do not single out certain employees is essential to ensure they are enforced equitably.

More liberal or relaxed dress codes are often viewed as a selling point or benefit by candidates and employees. Ensuring the policies are job-related, reasonable, and consistently applied will help keep your staff happy and engaged.