Should companies reasonably ask employees to moderate the appearance of their virtual characters—or “avatars”—to conform to the company’s dress code policies? Many companies currently maintain virtual worlds on their own computer networks (akin to the popular Second Life platform) that give employees the freedom to create their own virtual self-images that interact with the avatars of other employees. And given the almost limitless visual possibilities in creating and clothing avatars, they are frequently crafted to look far more risqué or outlandish than their real-world creators.  

A number of commentators in the business world have already begun to weigh in on whether companies can or should lawfully regulate the appearance of their employees’ avatars, when such appearance crosses the bounds of professional propriety and potentially offends colleagues. A well-publicized October 2009 report by IT technology consulting firm, Gartner Inc., found that “Avatars are creeping into business environments and will have far reaching implications for enterprises, from policy to dress code, behavior and computing platform requirements,” and estimated that by year-end 2013, 70% of enterprises will have behavior guidelines and dress codes established for all employees who maintain avatars inside a virtual environment associated with the enterprise.  

Although the first avatar appearance case remains to be seen, companies that are considering establishing employee avatar appearance codes should consider all of the following:  

  • Consider extending the existing employee code of conduct— including dress code policies—to include avatars in 3-D virtual environments. Like web-pages, blogs, and other social media, which are already frequently monitored and regulated by employers, avatars’ appearance and conduct can have effects on real-world employees and situations. It may be appropriate to extend existing codes of conduct, including dress codes as well as policies against discrimination, harassment and retaliation, to virtual realms.  
  • Enforce avatar appearance codes equally and fairly. Employment discrimination laws require that employers establish uniform guidelines applicable to all employees. Any effort at regulating avatar appearance and behavior should apply equally to all employees.  
  • Avoid the pitfalls of content-based regulation. Employers should take care not to develop avatar appearance requirements that could form the basis of a discrimination claim. For instance, restrictions that may give rise to a claim of religious discrimination (i.e., bans on religious symbols) or age discrimination (i.e., requiring avatars to reflect a more youthful image than their real-life counterparts) should be avoided.  
  • Train employees on the risks and responsibilities of workplace avatars. Avatars provide an outlet for imagination, fantasy, and escape in the modern workplace. Employers should counsel employees who maintain avatars in the company’s digital world that these opportunities come with an attendant responsibility to avoid behavior and appearances that might reflect negatively on the company.