Someone sporting an expensive designer suit would look out of place working in Target (even with a red shirt). Similarly, someone with a spiky punk hairdo would stand out in a conservative accounting firm. What about brow and lip piercings at the reception desk for a law firm? Can an employer put restrictions on what an employee is allowed to wear or not wear for clothing or jewelry or even how to groom their hair?
The short answer is yes. Companies do not really want to control employee appearance, but they need to ensure worker self-expression does not put anyone or the company success at risk. So, if there is a business reason or safety reason, am employer can dictate rules on attire, hair, grooming and accessories.
In fact, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides sample policies for its members to use in their companies. The dress code policy explains that employees need to exercise sound judgment when weighing their personal appearance and effectiveness in their roles. It also notes five factors companies can use to determine if employee clothing, jewelry and tattoos pose a problem:
- Safety for the employee or others,
- Whether it impacts productivity or performance,
- If offense to others on the basis of race, sex, religion, etc.;
- If it violates community norms (this is the gotcha – does the employee look out of place?); and
- If there are customer complaints
To customers, the way employees look is an extension of how the firm conducts business. Most company dress codes have sections about professional image. Two employers with very strict dress codes, including jewelry, are Disneyland and the Army. Disney will not allow employees to wear anything that detracts from the image required (one cannot look edgy and work in New Orleans Square). The military limits jewelry worn by soldiers to a watch and two rings that are “conservative and in good taste.” Female soldiers are allowed one pair of earrings, that must match, but not on all postings.
Religious Accommodations for Employee Clothing
There have been many lawsuits regarding religious attire or jewelry. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules against Abercrombie & Fitch for refusing to hire a Muslim woman who had to wear a head covering for religious purposes. They claimed it violated their look, but it was determined otherwise.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says an employer must make adjustments to an employee’s work environment to allow him or her to “observe a sincerely held religious practice.” The employee (or potential employee) who seeks a reasonable religious accommodation must make the employer aware that accommodation is requested due to a conflict between religion and work. This concerns clothes, jewelry, head or face coverings, or other needs. This does not mean every request is granted, if the employer has a sound reason to deny the request. For example, if the religious individual requests to keep a beard when an employer has a no facial hair policy, the accommodation may be denied it the employer established the rule for safety sake. Abercrombie just claimed the headscarf violated their dress code without establishing the reason an exception could not be made.
Employee and Customer Safety
Employee clothing, hair or jewelry that can be a safety hazard is always subject to restrictions. For example, there are government rules regarding jewelry if employees work around machinery, deal with heated surfaces, do electrical work, or are around chemicals. Necklaces, rings and metal watchbands can get caught on moving parts and conduct electricity and heats.
There are also restrictions on employee clothing, hair or jewelry where public safety is involved. Food preparation workers cannot wear jewelry that could hide bacteria and spread food-borne illness or infections. Some allow wedding bands under gloves. Some jobs have requirements on attire for safety reasons. For example, in England, doctors must have bare arms below the elbows (no long sleeves, rings or watch) for sanitary purposes.
By Dyanne Weiss