Employers all have different ideas about acceptable grooming standards, from the number and location of visible tattoos to hairstyles, clothing choices, gender non-conformity wardrobes and summer garb. But to ensure compliance with state and federal laws, employers need to assess and perhaps reassess their organization’s culture and policies in light of changing norms.
Dress codes that assume pants for men and skirts/dresses/pants for women are widely considered acceptable. But prohibitions beyond those generalities can cross a discrimination line. The days of requiring interns and employees to dress in formal suits and shiny shoes are about to follow dial-up internet into oblivion!
Natural Hairstyles and Religious Attire
In July, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the CROWN Act (Create a Respective and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) which protects the rights of Black Californians to wear their hair naturally. In New York, SB 6209 similarly protects hairstyle-based discrimination. It reads:
Section 1 of the Executive law is amended by defining the term “race” and “protective hairstyles” but not limited to, ancestry, color, ethnic group identification, and ethnic background, and shall include traits historically associates with race, including but limited to hair texture and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks and twists.
Some religions impose dress and grooming requirements on their members and similarly, employers who interfere with those requirements may inadvertently cross the line. For example, some Native Americans have profound spiritual beliefs connected to long hair and some Muslims must wear beards and certain garments and headgear to faithfully observe the tenets of their religion. If a company’s grooming or dress policies force people to violate their religious beliefs, the firm may risk lawsuits based on claims of religious discrimination.
Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that amends the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), making it unlawful to discriminate based on attire, clothing or facial hair worn to observe one’s religion. This refers to obtaining or retaining employment, as well as opportunities for promotion and advancement, and is effective October 8, 2019.
LQGBT and Gender-Nonconforming Considerations
Also in the NYSHRL, employers may not impose grooming or dress codes for employees and interns that require workers to conform to stereotypical ideas about masculinity or femininity. The reason: dress codes that reinforce binary gender stereotypes are insensitive to LQGBT or gender-nonconforming people. They also foist stereotypical norms onto cisgender people (those who identify with the sex they were born with) — for example, when dress codes permit women but not men to wear earrings.
Likewise, a grooming standard that prohibits men from wearing nail polish or make-up at work might be discriminatory. And if a transgender employee is passed over for a promotion because he/she does not groom themselves in the way that the employer expects (of someone of his/her assigned sex), that can cross legal lines, as well.
There’s no federal law – yet — specifically outlawing gendered dress codes, but a company may be legally liable if its policies are found to discriminate against employees based on gender, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In this era of progressive enlightenment surrounding transgender rights, it’s critical for companies to ensure that their policies are inclusive and don’t reinforce obsolete gender norms.
How to Remove Discriminatory Policies
You can follow the lead of Google and not have a dress code at all, or that of General Motors, a Fortune 10 company, which whittled its 10-page dress code down to two words: dress appropriately. At General Motors, there was initially some pushback from managers used to old-school dress codes but everyone worked out a solution. Employees can dress casually and wear jeans to work, but also keep a set of business casual clothes handy for more formal off-site business meetings. This simplified solution gave the employees autonomy which research shows increases employee happiness and loyalty.
If your company needs a more structured dress code, says Dr. Arthur Langer, director of the Center for Technology Management at Columbia University and chairman and founder of Workforce Opportunity Services, word choice is key.
Langer says it’s wise to eliminate differing standards for men and women and be careful describing remaining standards. For example, don’t specify which gender should wear which type of clothing, like close-toed shoes, button-down collars, and khaki pants or skirts. Make that “business casual” mandate apply to everyone with open-ended options and let them choose the clothing they’re most comfortable wearing to work.
It’s okay to ban items like flip-flops or shorts, Langer says, because those are gender-nonspecific. “Rather than call out tank tops and mini-skirts, use the phrase, “inappropriately revealing clothing is prohibited.” For more tips on crafting an appropriate dress code that not only reflects your brand, but maximizes employee contentment and productivity, visit BizFilings.com.
Interns and Your Workplace
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