The Gittes Law Group

Columbus, Ohio Employment Attorneys

723 Oak Street
Columbus, OH 43205
Fax: (614) 221-9655

(614) 222-4735

Dress Codes and Grooming

Many employers require their employees to follow a dress code. Employers regulate clothing, piercings, tattoos, makeup, nails, hair, and more. For the most part these dress codes are legal as long as they are not discriminatory. For example, men and women can have different dress codes if the dress codes do not put an unfair burden on one gender. However, even if a dress code is discriminatory, an employer does not need to make exceptions for certain employees if doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. For example, if someone’s religion said they could not wear pants but they worked at a factory that required them to wear pants a court would likely side with the employer as the pants are for the employee’s safety. To learn more about your rights with respect to dress codes and grooming, read below:

1. Can my employer tell me how to dress?

Yes. In general, employers are allowed to regulate their employees’ appearance, as long as they do not end up discriminating against certain employees. It is very common, for example, for an employer to require his/her employees to wear a uniform so that all employees appear uniform.

In today’s work world, more employers are requiring more formal attire. While in the last decade there was a trend for employers to be more laid back, and they allowed such things as “casual Friday,” in the last three to four years, some employers are taking a step back towards requiring a more formal way of dressing. Many employers feel that more formal attire means more productive employees.

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2. My employer is telling me how to dress, but no one else is forced to dress that way, is that legal?

No. An employer generally cannot single you out or discriminate against you. Dress code policies must target all employees, not just you.

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3. My employer has dress codes for women, but not for men, is that legal?

No. Employers cannot single out or discriminate against a particular group of persons. Dress code policies must target all employees.

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4. My boss requires me to wear makeup, and seems to have a much more different dress code for women than for men, is this legal?

While it is not legal to have dress codes only for one sex, but not the other, so far, the law seems to allow different dress codes for women and men, as long as they do not put an unfair burden on one gender more than the other.

For example, Harrah’s Casino implemented a dress code requiring women to wear extensive make-up, stockings, and nail polish, and required them to curl or style their hair every day. Men, however, only had to maintain trimmed hair and nails. A 20-year female employee did not want to wear makeup because it made her feel like a sex object, and she was subsequently fired by Harrah’s for not complying with the dress code. While this dress code seemed to discriminate against women and impose a greater burden on them, the court held that it was legal to fire the employee because she could not prove that Harrah’s requirements were more burdensome for women Jespersen v. Harrah's Operating Co., Inc., 392 F. 3d 1076 (2004). However, employees who can prove that the dress code is an unequal burden between male and female employees may be able to successfully bring a sex discrimination claim.

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5. My boss allows women to wear their hair long, but not men, is that legal?

Yes. Employers are allowed to enforce different dress code standards for women and men. However, they may not impose a greater burden on either gender.

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6. Can a casino, or other employer, make me wear a “revealing” or “sexual” uniform?

Usually yes. If looking sexy is part of your place of work’s image, then sexy uniforms can be required. However, there should be a bona fide reason for your employer to require you to wear sexy clothing, and employers are usually not allowed to require sexy uniforms if your workplace has nothing to do with a sexy image. Some unions have successfully fought to prohibit their female members from having to wear sexy uniforms at work, but these are rare cases.

Requiring revealing or sexual uniforms where no legitimate business purpose exists may constitute sexual harassment. An employer may be liable for either sexually harassing employees or encouraging others (like fellow employees or customers) to sexually harass employees. If you feel that your employer’s dress code has led to sexual harassment and violation of your labor rights, please contact your state department of labor or a private attorney.

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7. Is my employer allowed to tell me to maintain a certain weight in order to fit into a certain size uniform?

Yes and no. In cases where there is discrimination between men and women, such as women having to fit into a small weight range and men being able to fit into a large weight range, the courts have ruled that this is not legal. However, it is not illegal to have a requirement to maintain a certain weight as long as it does not end up in discrimination between men and women.

For example, Borgata Casino announced that it will fire members of its “Borgata Babe” waitstaff if they gain weight. Further, the waitstaff is only given 90 days after pregnancy to get back to their pre-pregnancy weight. The only way that women are allowed a larger uniform, is if they have had a breast augmentation. Some of the waitstaff sued Borgata, but the court ruled that the policy is legal because both male and female waitstaff have weight limits and the waitstaff knew what they were agreeing to when they took the job.

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8. Is my employer allowed to deduct the cost of my required uniform from my paycheck?

Possibly. Although an employer may deduct the cost of your uniform from your paycheck, it can be illegal under certain circumstances. The Fair Labor Standards Act makes it illegal for your employer to require you to wear a uniform, and then deduct it from your wages IF it causes your wages to fall below the minimum wage standard. Further, it is also illegal for your employer to make any profit on the uniform by deducting it from your wages.

Some states have passed laws prohibiting employers from being able to deduct the cost of uniforms from wages, but these laws are often narrow and do not provide broad protection. However, there have been successful lawsuits challenging employers’ requirements that retail employees wear the clothing sold by their employers, in order to have the store’s “look.”

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9. Can my employer tell me how to groom?

Yes. Your employer is allowed to tell you how to groom, at the very least to the extent that your employer is simply asking you to be generally clean and presentable on the job.

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10. Is my employer allowed to require me to shave my beard?

Maybe. Requiring an employee to shave his beard can end up in discrimination, because certain races, such as African Americans, have disorders that make it more burdensome to shave. For example, men who have Pseudofollicullitis Barbae, a skin disorder that is specific to African Americans, experience pain when shaving. Several individuals have successfully challenged companies that have required them to shave their beards.

However, if you do not have a skin condition as a result of your race and just prefer to have facial hair for personal and/or appearance reasons, you may not be able to challenge this requirement, as it is not discriminatory as applied to you.

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11. Is my boss allowed to tell me to cover my tattoos and piercings?

Yes. Many employers are worried that piercings or tattoos will offend customers and they are allowed to tell you to cover your “body art”.

In Cloutier v. Costco, an employee who claimed her eyebrow piercing was part of her religious observance as a member of the Church of Body Modification, and objected to Costco’s dress code policy after she was fired for refusing to remove her eyebrow piercing, had her legal claim rejected. The court ruled that the accommodation requested by the employee – to be exempt from the policy – would be an undue hardship on Costco, as it would adversely affect the company’s public image and would detract from the neat, clean and professional image it wishes its employees to portray.

Based on this ruling, it will be very difficult for those who want to bring legal challenges to succeed, especially if the basis for their choice to be pierced is not a religious one.

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12. Can my employer still tell me what to wear if my religion conflicts with my employer’s dress code?

If your religion requires you to wear, or forbids you from wearing certain clothing, like wearing a hijab, or a yarmulke, or not wearing pants, you may have some protection. Courts have held that employers have a legal obligation to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs so long as it does not impose a burden or undue hardship on the employer under Title VII.

A court held, for example, that a particular woman did not have to wear pants at work because her religion prohibited it, when her boss did not try to make reasonable accommodations for her religious beliefs. However, when another boss did try to accommodate his employee’s religious beliefs, a court found that a certain employee could not demonstrate an anti-abortion button. There have been a number of cases involving hijabs worn by Muslims and turbans worn by Sikhs, which have generally resulted in employers being required to accommodate clothing worn by employees for religious reasons.

If your employer wants to lawfully prevent you from wearing certain clothing, it must show that allowing you to wear this clothing would pose an undue hardship on the business. While customer preference would rarely, if ever, meet the undue burden test, safety hazards often will. For example, a factory may impose clothing restrictions for assembly line workers to protect them from loose clothing getting caught in the machinery or to protect them from getting burns. For more information on this topic please see our page on religious freedom.

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13. Does my employer, or prospective employer, have a responsibility to provide me with a dress code accommodation, when they reasonably know I need one, even if I did not ask for one?

Yes. According to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers must provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees requesting religious accommodations so long as the request does not cause the employer an “undue hardship.” However, in light of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores case, where a woman was declined a sales associate job because her hijab violated Abercrombie’s “look policy” even though the applicant was not informed of this policy, the Supreme Court held that if management has even a suspicion about an applicant or an employee’s religious views, it may violate Federal civil rights laws to not hire or accommodate that applicant or employee, while enforcing a completely neutral job rule.

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14. Can my employer ban me from wearing union buttons or t-shirts with the union logo?

You may have a claim under the National Labor Relations Act if the employer attempts to universally ban the wearing of all union insignia, even in a nonunion workplace. Employers are allowed to set neutral policies which prohibit certain types of clothing, such as t-shirts with union logos if the employer bans all t-shirts, if the employer enforces the policy uniformly.

However, several courts have determined that employees have the right to wear union buttons and pins to work, with two exceptions:

if wearing these items creates a safety hazard or,

in the case of workers with public contact, if the employees consistently are required to wear uniforms without buttons and pins.

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15. I feel that my employer’s dress code has violated my privacy rights or might be discriminatory. What can I do?

While employers have a fair amount of latitude in enforcing dress code provisions, if you feel that your privacy rights have been violated by your employer or believe the enforcement of the dress code is discriminatory, contact your state department of labor, or a private attorney for more information.

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