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What Kind of Dress and Grooming Codes Are Allowed for Employees?

March 7th, 2022
Philadelphia Employment Discrimination Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C., Help to Uphold Worker Rights.

Many job providers have dress and grooming standards for their employees. They generally have the right to create and enforce a dress code and grooming standards. However, those standards must be reasonable and not discriminate against anyone.

If you have visited a Hooters restaurant, you have an idea of the extent to which job providers can hold their employees to dress and grooming standards. The servers mostly are women and are wearing mildly revealing clothing, which is part of the dining experience.

A more conservative example would be a high-end restaurant in which all workers, male or female, must wear tuxedo-like outfits. As long as the dress and grooming standards are reasonable and applied fairly, an employer has the right to enforce them.

Practical Reasons for Grooming Standards

Grooming generally refers to appearance and presenting a clean and neat appearance. Employers have the right to require reasonable levels of grooming standards to ensure cleanliness and continuity among its workers.

A clean and uniform appearance is important for any business to portray for its clients, customers, and other people. Grooming standards help to do that.

In some occupations, grooming standards help to ensure safety and cleanliness. A restaurant might require hair nets for people who have long hair or beards. Some might even require short hair and no facial hair among kitchen staff and servers so that hair stays out of food.

Federal Laws on Workplace Grooming Standards

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enables job providers to determine and equally enforce reasonable grooming standards.

The standards could be based on safety or health considerations. The standards also can help to make all employees look generally similar, such as hair length regulations.

As long as grooming standards are reasonable and enforced equally, the EEOC and other regulatory bodies enable job providers to create and enforce grooming standards.

General Hygiene and Appearance Workplace Rules

Grooming standards can apply to more than general cleanliness and items such as facial hair or hair length. They also can regulate body piercings, tattoos, and other things that affect a worker’s appearance.

Workers could challenge grooming standards for a variety of legitimate reasons. The reasons might include:

  • Religious observances and modes of dress
  • Cultural factors that affect personal appearance
  • Disabilities that might make grooming standards impossible to follow

When workers have issues with grooming standards, they can raise objections with their employers. Workers might have legitimate concerns and request reasonable accommodations to do their jobs. When they do, employers are obligated to at least consider the proposals.

Undue Hardships Negate Accommodation Requests

The employers could show the requests would result in undue hardships. When an undue hardship would result from a workplace accommodation, the worker must continue to abide by the grooming standards.

An undue hardship occurs when a worker’s request for workplace accommodations would place an undue burden on other workers. Any disruption to the work also would count as an undue hardship.

If there is even one potential undue hardship arising from a request for accommodation made by an employee, the job provider could deny the request.

Potential Issues with Grooming Codes

Grooming standards must be reasonable, applied fairly, and not cause problems for workers. If an employer, supervisor, or manager unfairly singles out a worker for enforcement while allowing others to engage in the same behavior, that would be illegal workplace discrimination.

For example, a black man who is forced to completely shave his beard might suffer repeated minor injuries to his face. Facial hair grows differently on black men than on others. The effects of shaving could cause extreme skin irritation, acne, or skin infections.

If a worker has a legitimate issue with grooming standards, a reasonable workplace accommodation could resolve the matter. However, the worker would have to show how the grooming standards are discriminatory.

Dress Codes for Employees

Dress codes also are legal for job providers to create and enforce. Like grooming standards, the dress codes must be reasonable and applied equally.

Many workplaces require formal dress but offer a casual Friday in which dress standards are more relaxed. Many workplaces have a required uniform and provide them for male and female workers.

The uniforms often differ based on male and female outfits. But as long as the employer equally applies the dress code, workers must abide by them.

If an employer has a dress code but only selectively enforces it, that would be illegal. Selective enforcement is a type of employment discrimination and actionable in a court of law.

What about Gender Identity?

A worker who identifies as transgendered would have good reason to contest grooming or dress codes. Many grooming and dress codes are based on gender and could become problematic.

If a worker identifies as female and the workplace requires the worker to dress as a man, that could be discriminatory. So would grooming standards that require that worker to appear male rather than female.

The EEOC says sex discrimination based on a worker’s gender identity is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the worker must do more than simply declare his or her gender.

Formally changing the worker’s name in a court of law to reflect the change in gender status provides some legal backing for transgender claims. That helps to provide a corroborating determination by a court of law regarding a change in gender.

A worker who recently transitioned and has informed the job provider of the change in gender has the legal right to dress and groom as the gender to which the worker has transitioned.

An employer cannot force a worker to dress as the gender from which that worker has transitioned. The same goes for restroom usage, which is why many places now have unisex restrooms.

State and City Anti-Discrimination Laws Also Apply

In addition to federal protections against discrimination, workers also have state and local protections against discrimination that might arise from grooming or dress codes.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act outlaws discriminatory policies. Philadelphia also has a Fair Practices Ordinance that outlaws discrimination based on gender identity, among other factors.

If a worker has a legitimate claim of discrimination from a dress code or grooming standards, that worker could file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The commission could investigate and render a finding in favor of either the worker or the employer.

The worker also could file a complaint with the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission. The city’s commission could conduct its own investigation into claims of discrimination arising from workplace grooming standards or dress codes.

How to Pursue Claims for Dress or Grooming Discrimination?

You might be victimized by workplace discrimination arising from unequal enforcement of grooming standards or dress codes. If so, you cannot automatically file federal or state lawsuits against your employer.

Instead, you would have to raise the issue with your supervisor or other employer representative. You would need to show how the dress code or grooming standard is unreasonable for someone in your position and request a reasonable accommodation.

Your employer could agree with your and establish the accommodation. Your employer might deny the request. Your employer also might make an alternative suggestion for an accommodation.

If you cannot resolve the issue at work, you would need to file a complaint with the EEOC. You also could file complaints with the respective Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Human Relations Commissions.

If the EEOC, state, or city officials affirm discrimination occurred, you could proceed with a legal claim against the employer. An experienced employment discrimination lawyer can help to present the best case.

Philadelphia Employment Discrimination Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C., Help to Uphold Worker Rights

If you face workplace discrimination because of grooming or dress standards, you are encouraged to contact the Philadelphia employment discrimination lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Our dedicated legal team will advocate for you and ensure that your legal rights are always protected.  Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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