Dress Codes and Grooming Codes in the Workplace

Do you have the right to specify how your employees must dress and look when they are at work? Everyone who says “yes” raise your right hand. Everyone who says “no” raise you left hand. Everyone says “it depends” raise both hands. Everyone in that last group pat yourself on the back. Here is why “it depends.”

Uniform dress codes

According to the guidelines from the EEOC, “An employer may require all workers to follow a uniform dress code even if the dress code conflicts with some workers’ ethnic beliefs or practices.” Sounds pretty straight forward doesn’t it? We require everyone to wear a uniform case closed. Except…. If our dress code is casual then, according to the guidelines “A dress code must not treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin. For example, a dress code that prohibits certain kinds of ethnic dress, such as traditional African or Indian attire, but otherwise permits casual dress would treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin.” So in this case you would have a national origin discrimination problem. But that is not all.


You can also have a religious discrimination problem with your dress code. If your dress code prohibits clothing that has a religious basis, such as Sikh turban or Jewish yarmulke or Muslim headscarf, you are going to have to prove that such apparel poses an undue hardship on the business. That may be very difficult to do. According to the guidelines you are more likely going to have to revise your dress code.

Hair styles

Prohibition of various hairstyles has also caused employers discrimination problems. There have been a number of cases where Sikh beards and uncut hair have been allowed because of the religious significance. There have been several cases allowing Rastafarian dreadlocks on the basis of religion as well.

Beyond religion however, banning some hairstyles can also cause you race discrimination problems. According to attorney Lee Tankle,with McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC’s, the EEOC has sued an Alabama insurance company on the basis of an employee’s dreadlocks hair style. Tankle reports that an EEOC attorney said “litigation is not about policies that require employees to maintain their hair in a professional, neat, clean or conservative manner” but “focuses on the racial bias that may occur when specific hair constructs and styles are singled out for different treatment because they do not conform to normative standards for other races.” Tankle went on to say that some courts have suggested that employer policies banning “afro” hairstyles could be a race-based distinction in violation of Title VII.

I wonder

Would the company fire a blond hair, blue eyed employee who just came back from vacation in Jamaica where she had her hair braided into something that looked like dreadlocks?

Grooming Codes in the Workplace

What are your experiences with grooming codes and their application in the workplace?

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Mike Haberman

Michael (Mike) D. Haberman, SPHR is a consultant, speaker, writer of HR Observations, and co-founder of Omega HR Solutions, Inc. After over 30 years in HR he got tired of the past and focuses here on the Future of HR. Connect with Mike.


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