Easter Sunday just passed, so it is official —spring is here and, before we realize, summer will have arrived. With summer comes warmer weather and trips to the pool, lake, or beach. People exchange their jackets, sweaters, and boots for more casual clothing (such as flip flops, shorts, and tank tops). Often this overly casual attire makes its way into the workplace, notwithstanding dress code policies. Further complicating the matter, many employers institute “casual” dress days during the summer months. Therefore, this is a good time to remind employees and managers of the company’s dress code policy and the consequences for violating the policy.
Companies may establish dress code policies for either all employees or limited to certain departments in order to serve their business needs, including safety concerns, as long as the policies do not violate the anti-discrimination provisions of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or similar state law equivalents. For instance, reasonable modifications may be necessary for ethnic, religious, or disability reasons. However, failure to consistently enforce a neutral dress code/attire policy or provide reasonable accommodations can expose an employer prospective employer to potential liability. In fact, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court is a case pertaining to a religious accommodation from a clothing retailer’s dress code policy.
A thorough and well-written dress code/attire policy may, therefore, be important, as it sets out the rules to employees and managers, and establishes the standards and tone the employer wishes to set. However, consistent enforcement of the policy is equally critical — the devil is in the details so to speak. Consistent and uniform enforcement not only reduces potential liability exposure, but also prevents the slow deterioration of the dress code in the workplace. Stated another way, policies need to be enforced to remain effective.
Below are some general suggestions regarding enforcement of dress code policies:
- Explain the dress code policy to managers and employees, and be open to questions.
- Routinely remind employees and managers of the policy requirements.
- Explain to managers and employees the consequences of violating the policy. For instance, employees violating the policy will be required to change clothing/attire before being permitted to work, and the time it takes to change into appropriate clothing/attire will not be paid.
- Explain to managers that if safety is the reason, or at least some of the reason, for the dress code, not enforcing the dress code could expose employees to additional risk of injury.
- Provide employees and managers with specific examples of inappropriate and appropriate dress/attire. Photographs or detailed written descriptions are best.
- Educate managers that the policy should be uniformly enforced. Allowing some employees to wear more casual or even provocative clothing, when others are required to wear more conservative attire, could open questions about potential discrimination or improper working environments.
- Educate managers that the dress code should not change with the seasons. Inappropriate attire in the winter, generally, is inappropriate in the summer.
- Make sure managers understand that accommodations or exemptions from the rules may be legally required and to seek guidance from HR or the legal department, as needed.
- Make sure managers understand that dress down days may impact other company attire/appearance policies, such as a policy requiring visible tattoos be covered.
- Be clear that dress down days are temporary.
Litigation challenges to dress codes or attire policies has risen in recent years. Further, as noted above, potential liability can arise under a variety of circumstances. Therefore, employers should take appropriate steps to ensure both their managers are knowledgeable of the company policy and potential legal issues, including when to seek legal guidance.