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Shorts Season: Should your company implement a dress code?

The employment law attorneys at Bowie & Jensen explain personnel policies in relation to dress codes.

As the end of what has been a brutal winter nears, Marylanders are ready to welcome milder weather by trading corduroys for khakis and sweaters for polo shirts. Many employers have implemented or may consider implementing office dress codes to ensure that employees, who are tempted to wear cut-offs, flip flops, or short skirts, come to work properly attired.

Employers have the legal right to regulate how employees dress while working, but imposing dress codes can present potential legal and morale issues that must be kept in mind.

Image: Dress codes can help employers project the right image to their customers and clients.   Employers should identify the employees who have frequent contact with customers and consider the type of customer whom they service.  Employers should explain to those employees why it is important to dress in a certain manner so they understand the rationale behind the dress code.

Morale: Some employees may resent restrictions on their “right” to choose how they dress.  As a consequence, employers should design the nature and scope of dress codes so as to limit its application to employees who really must be required to dress “appropriately.”  On the other hand, dress codes can actually improve morale by eliminating hostility that some employees feel toward others whose attire is deemed objectionable.

Productivity:  Employers should not underestimate how an employees’ level of comfort can impact their productivity because they are able to work more efficiently dressed in a certain way.  In addition, dress codes can create a businesslike environment in which employees understand that they are there to work.  In that regard, educators have found that a requirement that students wear uniforms at school enhances their ability to learn.

Safety:  Employers implement dress codes in businesses such as food service, healthcare, construction, and manufacturing, in order to protect employees from accidents, injuries, or illness.

Discrimination:  When implementing and enforcing a dress code, employers must take care to avoid allegations of race, gender, ethnic, religious, and other forms of discrimination.  For example, a hotel in the District of Columbia was found to have violated the statutory prohibition of discrimination based on personal appearance by refusing to allow an employee to wear her hair in cornrows. 

Employers must also consider whether exemptions from aspects of a dress code must be made as accommodations to employees’ religious beliefs.  That issue has gained increased notoriety in situations involving women who want to dress in accordance with what they perceive to be the dictates of Islam.  In addition, refusing to allow women to wear pants, but permitting men to do so, can be a form of gender discrimination. 

Union:  If employees are unionized, employers probably must bargain with the union before implementing a dress code.

Employers should consider all of those factors when deciding whether to establish a dress code.  For more information about dress codes and other employment law issues, please contact the employment law attorneys at Bowie & Jensen. 

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