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Are We Free to Institute Any Mandatory Dress Code That We'd Like?

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Human Resources

Are we free to institute any mandatory dress code that we'd like?

By Joseph Beachboard, Esq.

Q. Are we free to institute any mandatory dress code that we'd like?

A. Mandatory dress codes have been creating issues for employers for years. Studies show a direct relationship between appearance and success in the workplace—not only for individuals, but for employers as well.

Technology and legal changes have made it more difficult to regulate employee conduct. And the lines have blurred between what's considered on-the-job versus off-the-job conduct. As a result, employers are confused about where — and when — they can put their foot down. Regulating Individual Expression On and Off the Job.

Wanting to project a certain image is an integral part of doing business, but it can present practical and legal problems. Dress and appearance codes can lead to union grievances, unfair labor practice charges, costly lawsuits and negative publicity.

In recent years, companies have paid millions to settle claims brought by employees claiming that appearance-based hiring practices and policies discriminated against women and minorities.

Whether your business is a professional sports league, retail clothing chain or anything in between, your dress and appearance code may raise several legal issues.

Remember, you ARE the boss of your employees. So it's important to know your rights when it comes to managing and regulating their behavior — both in and out of the workplace. Learn how to regulate employee conduct on and off the job, and where to draw the line.

As long as employers keep a few simple rules in mind, employee dress code and appearance issues should remain manageable. We suggest following these guidelines:

  • Create a policy based on business-related reasons (e.g., to present a professional appearance, to promote a positive working environment and limit distractions, and to ensure safety while working). Explain your company's rationale in the policy so employees will understand the reasons for the restrictions.
  • Require employees to have an appropriate, well-groomed appearance. Dress and appearance codes should not overly burden one gender or the other.
  • Communicate the policy through handbooks or memos. Be sure to explain the policy to job candidates.
  • Apply the dress code uniformly to all employees. However, be prepared to make exceptions if required by law. Do not make employment decisions on gender-specific behavioral expectations, and do not tolerate behavior by one gender but not the other.
  • Make reasonable accommodations when situations require an exception. Be prepared to accommodate requests for religious practices and disabilities in particular.
  • Apply consistent discipline for dress code violations.
  • Review contract terms to determine bargaining obligations before implementing any new dress or appearance policies if your company is subject to a collective bargaining agreement.
Can you tell employees to cover up tattoos or piercings?

Learn exactly what you CAN and CAN'T do to regulate employees' conduct — and how to satisfy the often-conflicting demands of the law. In this helpful training session — Regulating Individual Expression On and Off the Job, presented by Rodney Harrison, a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins — you'll learn practical, concrete answers to questions such as:
  • When can you legally monitor employees' email, blogging and Facebook posts — both at work and at home?
  • When MUST you monitor an employee's Internet use?
  • Rodney HarrisonCan long hair on a man be considered "religious expression"?
  • Can you prevent employees from talking about their pay or benefits?
  • When do dress and grooming restrictions go too far? (Use our model policy)
  • How can you say 'Yes' to Girl Scout cookie sales but 'No' to other solicitations — including unions?
  • What type of political speech must you tolerate inside and outside the office?
  • Does a boss's favoritism toward an employee he's dating count as sex discrimination? You may be surprised. (See our model fraternization policy)
This webinar has been approved for 1.25 credit hours toward PHR and SPHR recertification through the Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI). Join us on Monday, February 22.
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