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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.