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When Employer Fashion Police Go Too Far

Many employers believe in the importance of dress and grooming standards for their employees. For example, a California ski resort stresses a “clean and neat appearance” of employees in its grooming standards. Such reasonable requirements are lawful. But some employers take dress and grooming standards too far, sparking employee resentment and lawsuits for unlawful discrimination.

Employee dress requirements run afoul of the laws prohibiting gender discrimination, for example, when they tell women they can’t wear pants (see Govt C §12947.5) or require women to wear sexually provocative uniforms (see Priest v Rotary (ND Cal 1986) 634 F Supp 571, 581). Grooming policies can certainly differentiate in some respects between men and women without crossing over into unlawful sex discrimination, but discrimination may rear its ugly head if they create an unequal burden on one gender in terms of expense and/or time preparing for work.

For example, in Jespersen v Harrah’s Operating Co. (9th Cir 2006) 444 F3d 1104, a female casino worker argued that her employer’s grooming policy for women bartenders constituted unlawful discrimination. The Ninth Circuit disagreed in that case because it wasn’t just the women who had to comply with grooming standards; the casino’s policy required female bartenders to wear makeup and nail polish, but imposed similarly burdensome, albeit different, grooming standards on male bartenders.

In what seems like an anachronistic fact pattern, Law.com reports that a law firm in Detroit is being sued (.pdf) for creating a “hostile environment” based on gender for requiring its secretaries to wear high heels.

Some grooming policies have been found to have a racially discriminatory effect. For example, a “no beard” policy may be found to discriminate against African-American males who are sensitive to shaving. See Bradley v Pizzaco of Nebraska, Inc. (8th Cir 1993) 7 F3d 795, 799. Also, employers must reasonably accommodate employees in the implementation of grooming standards that conflict with an employee’s religious beliefs and practices. See Bhatia v Chevron U.S.A., Inc. (9th Cir 1984) 734 F2d 1382, 1383.

To be on the safe side, employers should have a dress and grooming policy that is fair and reasonable. Here’s some sample policy language:

The company recognizes the employee’s right to dress and groom as he or she chooses, unless the dress or grooming has an adverse effect on the company’s business or on the employee’s health and safety. Because your appearance affects the opinion that others may form of the company, the company requests that you dress in accordance with your positions and always be neatly attired. 

For more on employee handbooks and policies generally, including dress and grooming standards, check out Advising California Employers and Employees, chap 10 (Cal CEB 2005). Chapter 15 of that book covers discrimination issues.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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  1. […] When Employer Fashion Police Go Too Far […]

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