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Dress Codes: What Your Business Can Legally Regulate

image for Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock
Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock

Workplace dress codes launched back into headlines when Goldman Sachs announced that suits and ties were optional in March 2019. The move was surprising across the board – Goldman Sachs, like other finance giants, has long been known for its suited and polished employees – and signals a widespread change in workplaces across America.

Even as dress codes relax, they still hold an important place in the workplace – whether an office or a coffee shop – and provide a standard to which employees can be held as well as a sense of uniformity and professionalism, no matter the level of formality.

There are many things to consider when applying a dress code. Many people see clothing and outward appearance as expression of self, beliefs and lifestyle, which makes it a difficult thing to regulate. Read on to see what your business can and cannot legally regulate in your dress code.

When setting a dress code, it's important to think about your company's identity and the image you want to put forward. For example, it may reflect a disconnect if a lawyer shows up in jeans and a T-shirt, but for a creative director at a startup, it would be in line with the company's image.

You should also look at whether your employees' work has safety considerations. If they work with machinery, banning jewelry and requiring closed-toe shoes might be appropriate. If they move around frequently, you may need to require pants for all employees.

Lastly, think about how a dress code might affect your workplace's culture. Relaxing the rules may lead to increased collaboration and camaraderie, whereas requiring business formal may increase professionalism and decorum. Use your interpretation of the nature of your work and the cultural norms around it as your guide.

It is legal for businesses to have rules regarding clothing, hair, tattoos, makeup and piercings, so long as the policies do not discriminate based on gender, ability, race or religious beliefs.

To make sure your policies stay appropriate for all employees, start by making sure your dress code does not outrightly ban anything that discriminates unfairly against a specific group, such as Afro hairstyles, headscarves, beards or modest dress. Make sure the code permits these expressions as far as safety and professional considerations allow.

You should also be sure that everything you do include in the code has a defensible business justification and provides for reasonable accommodation where applicable. You will need to be clear and specific with what is permitted and what is not.

"Sadly, dress codes are established for the few, rather than the many," said Susan Hosage, senior consultant and executive coach at OneSource HR Solutions. "[They] create a guideline to inform employees about [expectations] and establish standards that allow supervisors to address the people that violate them."

Anything that cannot be regulated generally has to do with a class of people protected under federal law. A dress code cannot discriminate based on race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, religion, disability, genetic information or age.  

If you have requirements that differ between groups, they must not place an undue burden on members of either group. For example, you cannot stipulate that women must wear a full face of makeup while men are only required to be clean-shaven.

Businesses are also required to offer reasonable accommodation for employees who cannot comply with the exact demands of the dress code. For example, you could allow adaptive or soft clothing in a similar style to whatever is required for an employee with a physical disability.

You cannot restrict certain items of clothing, hairstyles or facial hair without strong business justification. For example, a ban on beards can be discriminatory against African-American men, 60% of whom have a condition that can make it painful to shave.

What you can and cannot restrict may also depend on the industry. Some jobs, like acting or modeling, have a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), which allows restrictions pertinent to the job, said Hosage.

When implementing a dress code, keep in mind your company's identity and what is best for your employees. One code does not fit all, and you'll need to be flexible to meet all of your employees' needs.

Kiely Kuligowski

Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and is now embracing her hipster side as a new resident of Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.