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Can a company dress code be discriminatory?

| Jan 22, 2021 | Employment Law

Yes, in some circumstances, even a neutral-sounding dress code could be discriminatory. There is a possibility that a certain dress code could violate federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination based on national origin, religion or disability.

According to the EEOC, employers generally have the right to establish a company dress code as long as it applies to all workers or to employees in particular job categories. This could involve a uniform requirement or general rules requiring neatness, cleanliness and a certain degree of formality.

However, a company’s dress code cannot legally treat some workers more favorably than others, and reasonable accommodations must be made for employees’ religious beliefs or disabilities. An accommodation is considered reasonable as long as it would not cause the company “undue hardship,” which means significant difficulty or expense.

For example, consider a dress code that allowed Americans or white workers to dress in casual clothing but prohibits employees from wearing “ethnic dress.” That might be discriminatory based on national origin. It would be one thing if all workers were required to wear formal business attire. However, choosing which types of casual clothing are “ethnic” and thus unacceptable under the policy could easily lead to discrimination.

Similarly, reasonable accommodations must be made when a dress code conflicts with some employees’ religious practices or beliefs. For example, a company could require uniforms for all its customer-facing employees. However, if a Muslim woman felt religiously obligated to wear a head scarf, it could be discriminatory to forbid the scarf. When a religious employee requests an accommodation that would not create undue hardship, the company must generally grant it. That could include modifying the dress code or permitting an exception.

The same thing could happen to a worker with a disability. For example, it might not be possible for a person with a certain disability to wear button-down shirts, for example, or remain clean-shaven. Again, the company has a legal duty to provide an accommodation, such as an exception, as long as doing so would not result in significant hardship or expense.

One purpose of our nation’s anti-discrimination laws is to ensure that people are given the chance to work despite religious or ethnic differences, disabilities, or certain other characteristics.

Have you had to deal with a discriminatory dress code?