The clothes you wear to work depend a lot on the job you have. Whether you’re required to wear a uniform or simply stick to company guidelines on dress and personal grooming, most businesses have a preferred style and, sometimes, rather strict rules. It’s important to know how far companies can go, however, in controlling how you look. Especially in a culture that promises freedom of religious expression and gender equality, knowing the law on dress codes and discrimination can save a lot of unnecessary problems.

The first thing to note is that you may have a lot less freedom than you think. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s page of prohibited employment policies and practices has barely two paragraphs on dress codes, all of which can be summed up in one line:

“In general, an employer may establish a dress code which applies to all employees or employees within certain job categories. “

Private companies are free to impose dress codes and personal grooming requirements on workers as long as they don’t discriminate (either intentionally or unintentionally). Most companies will make dress codes known before you start a job, but there’s nothing to stop them introducing new dress codes for current and future workers. Again, the key is that requirements must not be discriminatory – and even if they are, as long as exceptions can be made, the rules themselves may not need to change.

Can Dress Codes Be Different for Men and Women?

Yes. Employers are free to have different dress codes for male and female employees (such as requiring women to wear skirts, but men to wear trousers), and different personal grooming policies (allowing women to wear their hair long, but requiring men to cut it short, and remain clean shaven). These distinctions must be based on social norms, with exceptions permitted for religious or other reasons. In 2009, a court even ruled that it was legal to require women to wear makeup, but prohibit men from doing so as the policy failed to place a heavy burden on women and helped to maintain a professional look.

For both genders, if an employer requires you to dress in a sexual or revealing manner, they may be run into trouble under sexual harassment laws.

What Kind of Religious Exceptions do Employers Have to Make?

There’s no official list of religious requirements for workplace dress codes. The general rule is that companies should show common sense and be prepared to either provide individual exceptions or alter their policy if approached by employees. Some religions require that special garb be worn, for example (Islamic dress, or the Jewish Yarmulke/skullcap), and employers do have an obligation to make allowances for this. In the same way, if a company has a casual dress policy, it can’t then ban the wearing of traditional or ethnic clothes – that would be discrimination.

Requiring men to be clean shaven or to cut their hair is legal as long as exceptions are made for those whose religion forbids doing so, or for ethnicities (such as certain African men) whose sensitive skin can make daily shaving problematic. Failure to do so could constitute racial discrimination.

How About Tattoos and Piercings?

An employer has the right to ask employees to cover tattoos or remove piercings in line with company policy. Since this can usually be done without causing individuals a huge burden, it’s rare that employees have any legal grounds if they challenge these requirements. In some cases, religions forbid covering up certain tattoos, and in these cases employers would be expected to make an exception.

Courts, however, have reasserted that employers’ rights trump those of employees when it comes to body modification.

Title VII of the Civil Rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Title VII and ADA both establish an individual’s right to challenge workplace policies that are discriminatory or problematic. Title VII specifically requires companies to make changes to their policies to accommodate religious requirements or other special needs – as long as doing so does not pose undue hardship.When it comes to dress codes, it’s rare that making changes causes an employer to suffer undue hardship, so workers should be comfortable approaching their superiors to discuss problems. As for disabled workers, while companies have no legal obligation to alter dress codes, practical alterations should be factored in. (Does the dress code make it difficult to work in a wheelchair, for example? Can an alternative be found?) Some individuals have problems with buttons, or need special clothing. Employers have a duty to listen to, and respond to, any concerns raised.

In the end, open and honest communication should be your first resort if you’re unhappy with dress and grooming requirements. While simply not liking the dress code is unlikely to get you anywhere, suspected discrimination is a serious matter, and workers have a right to address any problems they see.

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