Can Employers Dictate Employee Physical Appearance on the Clock?

An employee’s physical appearance in the workplace can be important to an employer’s brand.  However placing unyielding requirements on employees’ physical appearance at work could potentially violate federal discrimination laws. 

Can Employers Impose a Dress Code? 

Generally speaking, employers have the legal right to establish dress and grooming codes for employees. Some companies require formal business attire, some companies allow employees to dress down on “casual Fridays,” and others adopt a more relaxed dress code throughout the week.

The Texas Workforce Commission specifically says, “employers can always require employees to appear at work with a neat and clean appearance, including combed or brushed hair, bathed, and wearing clean clothes.”

That said, it is important to know that employers might have to make adjustments to their stated dress codes in the event of a reasonable accommodation request under Title VII or other laws.  For example, in a case that made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Abercrombie & Fitch was found to have discriminated against an employee who requested an adjustment to the dress code policy prohibiting headwear.  Specifically, she sought to wear a headscarf for religious reasons. The U.S. Supreme Court found that an adjustment to the dress code policy to allow for the headscarf was a reasonable accommodation that Abercrombie & Fitch could and should have made.

Can an Employer Ask an Employee to Cover Tattoos or Piercings? 

If an employee has body piercings, an employer can request that he or she removes the related jewelry while at work. While it is harder to remove a tattoo, an employer can demand that an employee cover any tattoos while working.

Can an Employer Ban Dyed or Dreaded Hair in the Office?

In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that an employer who refused to hire a black woman because of her dreadlocks did not commit discrimination. 

In 2010, Chastity Jones applied for a job in a call center. Even though the job did not involve direct contact with the public, the employer required its workers to adhere to a dress code that demanded a “business or professional image” and prohibited “excessive hairstyles or unusual colors.” Ms. Jones was offered the job with the condition that she remove or cut off her dreadlocks. When she refused, the employer rescinded her job offer. Ms. Jones took her case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who sued on her behalf under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, and the employer’s actions were found to be non-discriminatory. 

As a result, some states recently have passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on various hair styles.  Texas is not one of the states to do so.

Can Physical Appearance Exacerbate Gender Bias? 

One recent study found that physical appearance might enhance gender bias in job advancement and retention. The study revealed that being an attractive man was an advantage in all jobs sought while being an attractive woman was considered a disadvantage in many professions. In this study, attractive women were discriminated against and their beauty was considered a detriment when applying for jobs traditionally identified as male jobs such as the manager of research and development, director of finance, mechanical engineer, or construction supervisor. A different study showed that attractive women tended to be sorted into more “traditionally female” positions like receptionist or secretary

Do You Have Questions About Your Imposed Dress Code? 

If you are an employer working to establish a dress code, or if there have been questions about the dress code and physical appearance at your business, contacting an employment lawyer could be helpful. The employment law attorneys at Simon | Pascal, PLLC can help to answer your questions and can help you develop policies that are compliant with all federal and state laws. 

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