Seyfarth Synopsis: With summer months almost upon us, here are some dress code tips and tricks for employers to ensure both employee compliance with relaxed summer dress codes and increased employee motivation and morale. We also note pitfalls to avoid when developing these dress codes.

Who doesn’t love wearing khakis and polos to work? Relaxed summer dress codes are a common practice among businesses that seek to boost employee morale during a time when some folks want to be at the beach. Establishing these summer dress code guidelines, however, can be a challenge because they can introduce ambiguity and confusion. Employees may not have a clear sense of what attire satisfies a “relaxed” dress code, and as a result wear clothing that is inappropriate.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind, with suggested language for dress codes.

Acceptable Summer Dress Code Restrictions

Establish written guidelines for dress in the workplace. One place to put them is the employee handbook. If a relaxed summer dress code is a new addition, then an addendum to the dress code policy may be in order, or even a stand-alone policy.

California recognizes the need for employers to adopt dress and grooming standards based on business needs. These include safety in the workplace, fostering an atmosphere of professionalism, and adherence to accepted social norms or customs. With these points in mind, it is generally okay to ask that employees not wear the following:

  • shorts
  • crop tops, halter tops, tank tops and spaghetti straps
  • “maxi” dresses
  • sun dresses
  • jumpsuits, rompers, or overalls
  • T-shirts
  • flip flops, sandals, and other casual footwear
  • sunglasses
  • hats

The EEOC generally tolerates dress codes that apply to all employees within a certain job category, even if the dress code might conflict with some workers’ ethnic beliefs or practices. Employers, then, can require employees to leave their nose rings, tongue studs, and other body piercings at home.

What To Avoid: Discriminatory Dress Codes

In America generally, dress codes that differentiate between men and women are not unlawful as sex discrimination because these employer requirements do not affect employment opportunities. Employers thus may allow women, but not men, to wear their hair long, or may ban earrings for men, while allowing them for women. But California takes things to the next level: California law forbids employers to ban the wearing of pants, unless that ban applies to both genders. California thus protects the right of women to wear pantsuits. There are a few exceptions to the pantsuits rule, such as dress codes requiring employees “in a particular occupation to wear a uniform” or requiring employees to wear a costume while portraying a specific character in a dramatic role.

Federal law does not recognize gender as a stand-alone category and instead identifies “gender identity, including transgender status” as types of sex discrimination. Not surprisingly, California is different here as well. California’s interpretation of gender includes “gender identity and gender expression.” “Gender expression” in California includes gender-related appearance and behavior whether or not it is stereotypically associated with the person’s assigned gender at birth. This language aims to protect persons whose physical and behavioral characteristics are associated with a particular gender. Summer dress codes, as with any dress code, should take into account this expansive definition.

California is also peculiar in the area of religious dress and grooming practices. California law, unlike federal law, defines “religious grooming practices” as including “all forms of head, facial, and body hair that are part of the observance” of the individual’s religious creed. Along those same lines, California is also peculiar in that it forbids segregating an employee to achieve a religious accommodation. Thus, an employer confronted with an employee with a religious grooming practice does not have the option of accommodating that practice by moving that the employer away from customers and to the back of the house.

Workplace Solutions

The summer months by their nature inspire a more casual atmosphere (especially in sunny California!). While dress codes can be tailored to reflect this, it is important to ensure that they still comply with the law and that they are consistently and equitably enforced (especially in California).