Dress Codes

When I moved to the Panhandle in early 1987, Amarillo had a very formal business atmosphere.  During the first three years that I practiced law, I never once wore pants to work.  A female lawyer’s standard uniform consisted of a skirted suit, pantyhose and heels, even on Fridays.

            The rules for workplace dress are much more relaxed now.  Local law firms have adopted Friday casual days.  Bank employees can often be seen in bank logo shirts and jeans.  Women in all occupations wear pants and sometimes even capris.  My suits hang in the closet unless I’m in court or making presentations.

            Amarillo workplaces are not alone in this trend towards more casual attire.  A recent Career Builders survey found that 78% of employees reported that their workplaces were casual, which was defined as “business casual” (khaki slacks and polo shirts, for example) by at least half of the respondents. More surprisingly, 20% of the respondents said their workplace was “very casual” (shorts, jeans and t-shirts).

Clearly the ability to dress casually is becoming an employment benefit that many employees expect.  In these times of low unemployment, employers may have to allow some flexibility in dress codes to attract and retain talented workers, particularly in creative environments such as computers, advertising and media. 

            However, nearly all employers still have some code for workplace appearance.  Most have policies that discuss specific clothing items and illustrate acceptable or inappropriate examples of workplace dress. 

In other words, it’s standard practice and perfectly legal for an employer to decide that short shorts, halter tops, workout clothes and flip-flops are inappropriate in an office environment.  If you are uncomfortable with employees having their tongues or other visible body parts pierced, you can prohibit them wearing their body armor or body art, such as tattoos, in your workplace or making them cover them up with clothing.

While formulating and enforcing a dress code is legal, actually writing one can be very difficult.  Styles and terminology change very fast. One key word in these policies is the requirement for your employees to adopt a “professional” appearance, which allows you some flexibility depending on fashion trends.

As you draft your policy, take caution not to discriminate. As an employer you must be careful not to adopt personal appearance standards that treat male and females differently.  You are most likely to get into legal trouble if your dress requirements promote demeaning stereotypes of women or notions of female attractiveness. 

The excuse that is always used is that “my customers prefer to see women in provocative clothing.”  Unless you can show that provocative clothing is a bona fide occupational qualification (a very difficult test unless you are running a strip joint), then you should avoid any such requirement of your employees or you run the risk of discrimination and sexual harassment suits.

            Another area of grooming which is frequently litigated is hair length.  Generally the cases have upheld an employer’s ability to require men’s hair to be short and well-groomed. 

However, policies that male employees be clean-shaven have been challenged on the basis of racial discrimination because a skin condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae, which primarily affects black males, can make it difficult for an African-American employee to comply with a no-beard policy. Furthermore, no-beard policies have been challenged as religious discrimination for employees practicing those religions that prohibit shaving.

            Religious discrimination has also been argued successfully in a lawsuit involving prison guards who wanted to keep their hair in the dreadlocks as an expression of their Rastafarian religious beliefs. 

Religion also entered into a debate over whether a female employee had to wear the standard uniform of her employer, which included pants, when her religion required her to wear skirts.  Each of these suits could have been avoided with a little flexibility in the policy for religious or racial concerns.

            As an employer you need assure yourself that your dress code requirements are job-related.  Carefully draft your policies so you can avoid as much liability as possible.  Let your employees participate in framing a workable dress code.  Then enforce it consistently unless an employee indicates that they have a legitimate religious, racial or gender problem with your dress code.

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