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Dress Codes, Demographics, & Discrimination

On Behalf of | May 25, 2023 | Labor and employment law

As a business owner, you might be concerned about your company’s dress code. You certainly want to use a dress code to create the right type of atmosphere at your company. A company’s culture is often reflected in its dress code, and a business can certainly improve its image solely by managing the way its employees present themselves to the world.

However, you may also be worried that it could get you into legal trouble if the code itself is unintentionally discriminatory. This could include a dress code that is neutral on its face, but that has a disproportionate effect on one particular demographic. Fortunately, it is possible to establish and enforce a dress code, while simultaneously minimizing the risk of a discriminatory impact.

Your dress code must apply equally.

As a general rule, the dress code will need to apply in an equal manner, to everyone. Though this may seem self-explanatory, employers often run afoul of this rule by prescribing different standards for different categories of employees. Oftentimes, these distinctions are found to be arbitrary. Further, you cannot give certain workers a dress code, while exempting other employees from the same requirements. If it is necessary for any reason to prescribe different dress codes for different categories of employees, employers must be ready to fully justify these distinctions.

You must enforce it consistently across all demographics.

The language of the dress code is only half of the analysis. The other half is how it is enforced. A dress code that purports to apply to everyone, in the same way, can still be enforced in a way that gets an employer into hot water. For example, if an employer requires a certain dress code for all of its employees, but disproportionately enforces the dress code only against its female employees, then this could be viewed as discriminatory. Any enforcement of the dress code must be consistent across all demographics.

Beware of disproportionate impacts.

Even a dress code that applies to everyone can be discriminatory in some cases. This may happen if it targets certain employees in practice more than others, even though the same set of rules applies to all employees.

For example, religious exemptions are often a good idea. If you create a dress code banning a certain type of religious attire or hairstyle, then the dress code itself is not discriminatory (assuming the religion itself is not mentioned within the policy). However, if the dress code itself disproportionately affects members of a certain religion, then the dress code could be viewed as discriminatory. This is frequently the basis of religious discrimination claims.

What options do you have?

Dress codes serve an important purpose, and they can further important business interests. However, on the other hand, the way a dress code is written – and the way it is enforced – can get an employer into trouble. To mitigate the risk of litigation, make sure you consult with a qualified attorney before adopting, revising, or enforcing your company’s dress code.