Illegal Workplace Policies: Appearance, Dress Codes, and Grooming Policies

There are legal limits on the grooming and dress code requirements an employer can adopt.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Many employers have policies that regulate employee appearance and dress. These might take the form of dress codes, uniform requirements, policies prohibiting visible tattoos or piercings, or grooming rules (such as that male employees must be clean-shaven or have short hair, or that female employees must wear makeup).

Are these policies legal? It depends. Some dress and grooming rules have been found to be forms of illegal discrimination.

What Is Illegal Workplace Discrimination?

Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, genetic information, or age (if the employee is at least 40 years old).

State laws may prohibit employers from discriminating based on additional traits, such as marital status or military veteran status.

These laws prohibit discrimination in every aspect of employment, from hiring to firing. This includes workplace policies that regulate employee appearance, such as dress codes, grooming codes, and uniform requirements.

Examples of Policies That Discriminate

A grooming or dress policy that discriminates against a protected class of employees is illegal. This is true whether the policy discriminates explicitly or simply has a disparate impact on one group. Here are some examples:

  • Shaving. A policy requiring employees to be clean-shaven might discriminate against African Americans, who are more likely to have a skin condition that makes shaving painful. It might also discriminate against employees whose religious beliefs require beards.
  • Hair length. A policy requiring men to have short hair might discriminate against employees whose religious beliefs prohibit cutting hair.
  • No tattoos or piercings. An employee whose tattoos or piercings must be displayed for religious purposes might have a discrimination claim. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought claims on behalf of an employee who argued that his religious beliefs made it a sin to cover his tattoos of religious inscriptions.
  • Policies that impose different requirements on men and women. As long a dress or grooming code doesn't impose more stringent requirements on one gender, or require that employees dress in sexually provocative ways, it is likely legal. However, an employer that required employees of only one gender to wear uniforms or follow a dress code might be violating the law.
  • Policies that are difficult for employees with particular disabilities to follow. It's legal for an employer to require all employees, including those with disabilities, to wear a uniform or follow a dress code (for example, that employees wear professional business attire). However, an employee whose disability prevents compliance may require a reasonable accommodation. For example, if an employee who uses a wheelchair would suffer discomfort from wearing a stiff uniform all day, the employer may have to allow the employee to wear something similar (for example, clothing of the same color and style) that won't cause the same problems.

State Laws on Ethnic Hairstyles

About half the states now ban workplace discrimination based on certain ethnic or cultural hairstyles, such as braids, afros, dreadlocks, or twists.

If you work in one of these states, your employer isn't allowed to institute a grooming policy that bans (or otherwise disfavors) these sorts of hairstyles.

Check with your state's labor department to learn whether your state bans this kind of discrimination.

What to Do If Your Employer's Policies Discriminate

If you believe that your employer's policies discriminate, your first step should be to talk to your employer. For example, if your employer requires male employees to have hair no longer than their collars, but your religious views prohibit cutting your hair, you should explain that to your employer.

Be prepared to meet the employer's objections about the reasons for the policy. For example, if safety is a concern, you might agree to wear a hair net. Or, if your employer is concerned about neatness, you could offer to pull your hair back while at work.

Contact an Employment Law Attorney

If your employer refuses to accommodate your concerns, you may want to talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can assess your employer's policy, determine whether it violates the law, and explain your options for protecting your rights.

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