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When is a workplace dress code discriminatory?

On Behalf of | Sep 28, 2022 | Employment Law

If you’ve spent most of the last few years working from home, there’s a bit of a culture shock when you walk back into an office full of people – not the least of which might be the sudden reminder that dress codes exist in a lot of workplaces.

Even more confusing, what’s acceptable garb in one workplace might not pass muster at all in another. While you may realize that your yoga pants and old sweaters won’t fly, you may not be ready for a dress code that seems not only overly rigid but potentially discriminatory.

A dress code has to apply to everyone equally and make sense

Sometimes, employers institute a dress code that they think is fair because it applies equally to everyone – but even that can still cross a boundary line if it creates discrimination for one or more groups of employees.

For example, a dress code that prohibits “visible religious wear” might seem like it’s a way to keep crosses, crucifixes, Stars of David and pentagrams under clothing and out of sight – but it could have a very discriminatory effect on a Sikh employee who always wears a turban as part of his religion or a Muslim woman who wears a Hijab.

Similarly, a dress code should keep in mind the idea that not everyone expresses themselves or their gender identity equally. A policy that mandates makeup for female employees and short hair for males could run afoul of laws prohibiting gender discrimination.

Any dress code that addresses grooming policies is suspect because those policies often target both people of color. Policies that refer to hair as “neat and professional” are often coded to discriminate against natural Black hairstyles like box braids, Bantu knots and Afros. Such a policy may be in direct violation of the CROWN Act, which prohibits hair discrimination in California.

Dress codes can and have been used to bully minorities in the workplace for years. If you suspect that your company’s dress code is discriminatory, it’s time to learn more about your legal rights.