Dress Codes and Related Employee Appearance Issues

One of the most challenging is­sues for human resource (HR) man­agers is how best to align company policies regarding appearance, grooming, and hygiene with business necessity, safety, legal compliance, and reasonable accommodation. This article identifies the substantive aspects of dress and appearance policies that should be considered when employers communicate their expectations to employees.

Policies covering these issues are generally accepted as the province of the employer, who develops them in compliance with state and federal regulations. Exceptions may exist within public sector entities or when employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Policies should be clearly written, and each policy should include a purpose, summary, and scope (eg, who is covered by it, specific departments, and eligibility), as well as relevant definitions and the actual policy narrative. This last part should include the basic course of action or general approach designed to achieve the results desired. Finally, these policies should direct employees to seek management’s guidance or approval if the appropriateness of any specific course of action or employee decision may be in question. In many cases, if a compromise cannot be easily agreed upon, management should reserve the right to send an employee home to correct a policy violation before returning to work.

Business necessity should be the driving force when developing such policies. This standard can range from safety (no open-toed shoes) to comfort (shorts for delivery personnel in hot weather) and company branding (ie, uniforms or formal business attire and a clean, professional image). In many workplaces, attire that is too provocative must be addressed immediately by the employer to minimize harassment issues. Dress code policies reinforce company culture and values, and each job description should include clear and valid requirements for a particular dress and grooming standard.

Closely related issues include responding to employee requests for accommodation for health or religious reasons, or for reasons related to other factors that place the employee in a protected class. These can include headwear, jewelry, hair placement or length, and allergic reactions to certain materials. Policies must also strive for fair treatment of all races, both sexes, and any employee in a protected class; policies cannot be unnecessarily burdensome for one sex or group. A more contemporary dimension includes the topics of sexual orientation and transgender employees. As with any accommodation, employers should make good faith efforts to identify and implement them. The exception, of course, is if the accommodation creates an undue hardship for the employer.

Personal grooming and hygiene are topics usually addressed in related policies. Topics should include standards of cleanliness, naturally occurring hair colors, hair length, absence of unpleasant body odor, use (or prohibition) of personal fragrances and other grooming products, visible body piercings, and body art. HR must have the communication skills necessary to address real or potential violations with employees in a professional manner.

Many of today’s workforces are widely diverse, and companies would be wise to reexamine their appearance and grooming policies to accommodate this diversity. Employers should strive for a culture of respect, open communication, fair and reasonable treatment, and a genuine concern for employee safety and productivity. This is simply good business and sound management. Finally, all HR policies should receive legal review on a regular basis.

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