Dress Codes & Discrimination

Dress Codes & Discrimination

Dress codes. It’s safe to say nobody likes them, but we cannot ignore them. In the past few years, office dress codes have received more spotlight in the news. Companies are being accused of discriminatory dress code policies. Some companies are choosing to modernize their outdated policies and others look at their dress codes as part of their branding.

For small businesses owners, if they consider dress codes at all, often see the dress code as just another tedious matter to address. If any thought is given to a dress code, many companies think: Is our policy too formal? Too casual? Employees might feel micromanaged or insulted. 

To add to the stress of a dress code, human resources experts remind us that dress code policies must consider potential discrimination based on gender, race, religion, disability, and other federally or state protected statuses. Believe it or not, there are still many companies who have discriminatory dress code policies, and as a result, have dealt with the consequences.

A discriminatory dress code can land a business in court. In the 2000’s Abercrombie and Hollister, and other fashion and apparel brands hired employees based on their looks and adherence to a strict “look policy” which demanded particular hairstyles, brand name outfits, and body types. Criticism mounted and resulted in a lawsuit against Abercrombie’s look policy that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. A young Muslim woman brought the suit because the “look policy” prohibited the wearing of a hijab, a religiously discriminatory policy violating several state and federal laws. Abercrombie’s restrictive policies that had once made the brand elite eventually came to turmoil. The company witnessed a deep decline in sales and was forced to develop policies that encourage individualism.

Should an employee feel discriminated against they have the right to take up their grievances legally which can lead to legal expenses as well as business interruption, or in the case of Abercrombie, a significant impact on the bottom line. Discrimination issues are complex, and flexibility can be the solution for avoiding problematic and costly legal issues.

How can businesses be sure that we take all of these factors into account? In making a dress code for your company three words of advice will solve lots of problems:

be more flexible.

General Motors has become an innovative leader when it comes to modernizing and simplifying their dress codes. GM’s Executive Chief Mary Barra, while serving as the head of the company’s human resources department, introduced a new dress code policy.. Barra cut GM’s dress code from a ten-page document to two words: “Dress appropriately.” With those two words, GM expressed trust in the judgment of their employees, allowing them to consider what is “appropriate.” Should they have doubts, they talk to their managers.

Starbucks is also a leader in a flexible yet uniform dress code for its employees. While Starbucks baristas are encouraged to express their individuality through hairstyles, hats, tattoos and personal style, the international company still places guidelines based on color schemes, patterns, fabrics, and, of course, basic safety and sanitation requirements.

As a basic rule, your dress policy must not impact one group more than another. For example, requiring women to wear a skirt and heels every day when their male colleagues are permitted to wear slacks and more comfortable shoes discriminates on the basis of gender. Conversely, requiring everyone to wear pants without a safety reason can violate some religious practices. Trying to write a policy to accommodate all these factors leads to judgment calls that no employer should be making. Of course, there is a difference between a sales team out in the field and employees performing physical labor in a stock room, so their clothing will be different. Additionally, a dress code policy that requires certain personal protective equipment, such as safety glasses, hard hats, or steel-toed boots is entirely appropriate and required by workplace safety regulations. But I also don’t consider personal protective equipment to be a dress code issue either.

Communication is a powerful, important tool for any small business looking to make their dress code more flexible. Should an employee have questions about a simplified dress code, you’ve got to make sure the door is open for conversation.

When writing or updating your dress code policy as a business, take lead from the companies who are clear, straightforward, and open with their employees. Your willingness to be flexible could go a long way to avoid potential discriminatory practices with your employees and to treat them with respect.