United States: Sorry, J-Lo And Ceelo: Real World Requires Carefully Crafted Employment Dress Codes

The Grammys aired on Sunday, February 12, 2017. Every year, audiences tune in to the glamorous awards show to watch the presentation of such celebrated accolades as "Song of the Year" and to take in the live performances of their favorite musicians. I, however, plant myself in front of the television for one reason only—to scrutinize the often outrageous outfits worn by the music industry moguls and Hollywood insiders. Can you believe that it has been almost 20 years since Jennifer Lopez walked the red carpet in the green dress that was slashed all the way down to her pelvis? Such eye-popping outfits and costumes continue to dominate the show.

In my opinion, this year's award for most intriguing Grammy look went to CeeLo Green, who dressed in gold from head to toe and donned some sort of gilded hairpiece that commentators appropriately compared to a piece of Ferrero Rocher candy. A-list celebrities have the freedom to express themselves with bold clothing wherever they go, of course, including to "work events" such as the Grammy Awards. However, for everyday employees, that is not the case.

The HR department (often in conjunction with an in-house legal department or outside legal counsel) should adopt dress code policies to ensure that employees are exercising good judgment with respect to personal grooming and attire in the workplace (and while attending any work-related, after-hours functions). Such policies are necessarily broad-ranging, from a required, singular uniform that all employees must don in a specific manufacturing setting to a relaxed policy where employees are free to wear their own clothes each day so long as those clothing choices are appropriate for the company's business (and industry).

While enjoying wide latitude when it comes to adopting dress code policies and practices for their workers, employers must take caution with respect to a couple of areas or chance running afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Therefore, to avoid an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge related to dress code (and to avoid litigation by the EEOC or an individual), HR representatives should consider the following when drafting or reviewing their organization's dress code policy:

  • A dress code policy may not treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin. The example often cited by the EEOC is that a dress code may not prohibit certain types of ethnic clothing, such as traditional African or East Indian attire, while allowing employees to select and wear other types of casual clothing.
  • An employer must consider and evaluate possible religious accommodations with respect to its dress code policy. An employee may request a religious accommodation under Title VII when a dress code conflicts with the employee's religious practices. In such cases, the employer should consider modifying the dress code to remedy the conflict or permit an exception (unless it would cause an undue hardship). A group of high-visibility lawsuits brought by the EEOC against Abercrombie have focused on dress code policy in the context of a Muslim hijab (headscarf), which the company claimed violated its "Look Policy." Not surprisingly, the EEOC disagreed with the retailer.

In sum, while it is a best practice for most companies to maintain a dress code policy to ensure that employees are dressed safely and appropriately at all times, such policies have to be drafted and enforced with an eye on anti-discrimination and accommodation laws. And, finally, here's to hoping that your organization does not encounter such interesting attire on the job as that donned at the Grammy's by JLo in 2000 and CeeLo in 2017!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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