A dress code is a set of rules, which are usually written, that outline what types of clothing groups of individuals are required to wear. A dress code is created out of social perceptions and norms.

Dress codes also vary depending on their purpose, occasions, and circumstances. There are four general categories of work or corporate dress codes, including:

  • Business formal;
  • Business professional;
  • Business casual; and
  • Casual.

There may also be businesses which have different dress codes for different days of the week. For example, a business may dress business professionals on Monday through Thursday and on Fridays allow their employees to dress business casual or casual, such as by wearing blue jeans.

Are There Federal Laws Regulating Dress Code in the Workplace?

Currently, there are no federal laws which specifically outline what types of dress codes are permissible and what types are not permissible at work. There are, however, federal laws which prohibit gender and religious discriminations which may provide an employee with protections when they want to dress a certain way at work.

It is important to note that employers may be able to enforce dress codes at work while still being in compliance with these anti-discrimination laws.

Can an Employee Wear Religious Clothing in the Workplace?

In general, employees are permitted to wear religious clothing in the workplace. Employers that prohibit employees from wearing religious clothing may be sued for religious discrimination.

Employers, however, may enforce dress codes which prohibit certain religious clothing if wearing that clothing would lead to a potentially serious issue, such as safety hazards.

What is Religious Discrimination?

Religious discrimination occus when employers treat certain employees differently because of their religious preferences. Religious discrimination is also a form of employment discrimination.

Employment discrimination occurs when an employee is treated less favorably than similar employees because they belong to a protected class. Religion is an example of a protected class.

This means that if an employee is being treated less favorably or differently than other similar employees due to their religion, it is considered workplace discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically addresses religious discrimination in Title VII.

The Civil Rights Act prohibits an employer from basing any of the following actions on an employee’s protected class, including their religion:

  • Hiring and firing;
  • Compensating, classifying, or assigning;
  • Transferring, promoting, demoting, or laying off;
  • Job advertisements and recruitment of new employees;
  • Testing;
  • Allowing or banning the use of company equipment or spaces;
  • Access to training or apprenticeship;
  • Creating a dress code that specifically inhibits religious employees;
  • Access to retirement, disability, and fringe benefits;
  • Scheduling work related activities or work times in order to intentionally conflict with religious holidays; and
  • Harassment, including the failure to protect an employee who is being harassed by a coworker.

In order to avoid be accused of engaging in religious discrimination an employer is prohibited from engaging in certain specific acts, including:

  • Treating specific employees more favorably because of their religion, or less favorably because of their religion;
  • Forcing employees to participate in practices against their religious beliefs; an exception to this is the Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications defense (BFOQ defense); or
  • Allowing employees to be harassed because of their beliefs. This includes being harassed by other employees as well as management.

What is a Religious Accommodation?

According to federal laws, an employer is required to accommodate reasonable religious practices. For example, if an employee needed to change their work schedule in order to observe a holiday that is specific to their religion.

A religious accommodation would also include allowing an employee to wear religious garments, so long as the request is not unreasonable. Employers are required to allow employees to wear religious clothing such as religious dress or head covers.

Can an Employer Require a Dress Code Only For Women?

Any dress code which places different standards upon men and women may be considered illegal due to sex discrimination. A dress code cannot reinforce stereotypes regarding gender.

Any employment dress code which differs from acceptable social customs or applies radically different standards for women and men will likely be considered illegal. Dress codes which are mostly the same for both genders and only differ in a few ways will likely not face as much opposition.

There are some individual states, such as California, which have enacted special dress code laws that compel employers to allow women to wear pants in the workplace. California also has other laws regarding employee dress code and grooming standards.

In California, an employee handbook of policy may impose personal grooming standards which can include:

  • Hair styles;
  • Beards;
  • Makeup;
  • Fingernails;
  • Jewelry;
  • Hygiene; and
  • Other personal matters.

These types of issues may be relevant when an employee is dealing with the public, handling dangerous equipment, or trying to maintain sanitation. California employers are required to pay for:

  • The cost of their employee’s uniforms;
  • Replacements of those uniforms for normal wear and tear; and
  • Any special required upkeep, such as dry cleaning.

The California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement considers normal cleaning of employee uniforms to be the responsibility of the employee. If an employee loses or destroys their uniform, it may be best handled as a disciplinary issue.

In California, the definition of a uniform is broad. Even if an employer mandates a seemingly generic item, such as khaki pants or a blue button-down shirt, it may be requiring a uniform.

A California employer is not permitted to mandate that their employees purchase goods from a particular business under the Labor Code. If there is a retailer that requires the employee to wear their clothing, that retailer should furnish and clean the garments for the employees.

The State of California was the first to forbid a dress code which prohibits women from wearing pants at work. Although these types of policies are things of the past, modern dress codes may encounter difficulty when the standards differentiate based on sex.

For example, dress codes should not bar skirts which hit above the knee if the dress code allows men to wear shorts that hit above the knee. The answer to this issue is to bar clothing which reveals any skin above the knee.

Can an Employee Wear Clothing or Accessories in Support of Their Union?

Yes, an employee may wear clothing or accessories in support of their union. The National Labor Relations Act permits employees to wear clothing or accessories in support of unions, so long as the clothes do not pose a safety concern or conflict with other work rules.

Are Visible Tattoos and Piercings Protected?

In general, no, displays of tattoos and piercings as a form of self-expression is not protected by state or federal laws in the workplace. If employers object to an employee’s body piercing or tattoo, they may be able to lawfully fire that employee.

Do I Need An Employment Lawyer?

It is helpful to have the assistance of a discrimination lawyers if you have any questions or concerns regarding your company’s appearance policy or dress code. Your lawyer can assist you with the differences between fair company policies and policies which may constitute unjust discrimination. They can also represent you in court if you need to attend trial or other important hearings.