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3 Tips to Keep Discrimination Out of Your Dress Code Policy

May 2, 2019

It’s time we talk about the glaring blind spot in workplace diversity – corporate dress code policy.

Diversity in the workplace isn’t an HR trend, it’s an important step towards correcting outdated corporate behavior. As previously mentioned in a compilation of essential HR statistics for 2019, 67 percent of candidates want to join a diverse team.

While some companies are trying to stay ahead of the curve with methods for attracting diverse talent, many are missing the bigger picture. While your outward initiatives to attract diverse talent may be working, your internal processes could be driving them away.

Is having a dress code policy legal?

So, what are you allowed to include in your dress code policy? Every state has its own rules regarding employee rights and workplace discrimination. However, there are universal rules that every employer needs to follow regarding your dress code policy.

The law surrounding workplace discrimination is changing every day. Don’t wait until something becomes illegal to address. It’s better to take a proactive and inclusive approach to your workplace policies.

Looking for an easy to keep your HR department compliant with state and federal law? Browse the best HR Compliance Software as rated by G2 users.

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How to keep discrimination out of your dress code policy

The key to identifying and ridding your dress code policy of discrimination is to understand how unconscious bias impacts recruiting, hiring, and retention. Simply put, unconscious biases are inherited or learned stereotypes about others that we form without realizing. Not confronting your own unconscious biases can affect other people.

So, how can we as HR professionals confront our unconscious biases and fix our dress code policy? It starts with these three tips:

1. Keep your dress code policy gender neutral

By the letter of the law, your company is allowed to dictate different dress code policies for men and women, so long as your dress code does not place a heavier burden on any one gender. Setting the law aside, there are other important reasons to keep your dress code policy gender neutral.

Discrimination based on gender and gender identity

You may have an employee who has a gender identity outside of male or female. Employees who identify as transgender, gender–nonconforming, nonbinary, or gender-fluid may feel targeted or burdened by dress code policies made on the basis of gender.

And there’s a legal implication to ignoring the impact of your dress code on your employee’s gender identity. There are currently 21 states that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

laws against gender discrimination

If your dress code policy infringes on an employee’s right to express their gender identity freely, you could find yourself in hot water.

Discrimination based on religious practices

Your dress code policy may also be inadvertently using gendered language to discriminate against an employee’s religious beliefs. To keep in line with their religious practices, some women prefer to cover themselves by wearing pants, leggings under their skirts, hair coverings, etc.

A policy that enforces that women cannot wear pants or coverings for their hair could be in violation of an employee’s religious beliefs. Alternatively, requiring female employees to wear makeup or heels could also conflict with how that employee is choosing to practice their faith.

Employers should ensure that their dress code policies are not only compliant with state and federal law, but that they allow room for expression. Reducing the amount of gendered language in your dress code policy will help provide a safe and respectful workplace for your employees.

2. Leave rules about grooming out of your dress code policy

Many dress code policies have a section covering grooming practices. These policies can range from how long an employee’s hair is allowed to be to what color they’re allowed to dye it. What many companies don’t realize is that these grooming policies can discriminate against women of color and religious minorities.

Discrimination against women of color

There have been countless stories in the news about black women being forced to alter or cut their natural hair due to outdated grooming policies. These protective styles worn by black women are often necessary to maintain the health of their hair. It’s become such a problem that some states are passing laws against hair discrimination to combat the problem.

Requiring black women to pay for and maintain complicated hairstyles to alter their natural hair may fall under laws against placing a heavier burden on an employee based on something they cannot control.

Discrimination based on religion

Another reason you shouldn’t dictate grooming policies in your dress code policy is that it may discriminate against employees based on their religion. There are many faiths where followers are not allowed to cut their hair or they may be required to cover their hair. Including policies that dictate how men should keep their facial hair or dictating whether hair coverings or hats are allowed could unfairly target these individuals.

3. Keep people with disabilities in mind

A larger overlooked factor in creating a dress code policy is whether or not your policy offers reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Employees with disabilities, whether temporary or permanent, must be allowed to dress in a way that does not complicate or hinder them.

To help give you a better understanding, here are a few examples of how an employee might need a more relaxed dress code policy in order to be comfortable at work.

What dress code accommodations might you need to make for disabled employees?

  • A diabetic employee may need to wear pants in order to use their insulin pump
  • An employee with a broken arm may need to wear a skirt for ease of use
  • An employee who uses a wheelchair may require shoes that slide on over laced shoes
  • An employee with eczema may be more comfortable wearing clothing that doesn’t irritate their condition

When creating your dress code policy, ask yourself this question: does my dress code policy offer reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities? If you’re not sure, the answer is probably no, and you need to revisit your dress code policy.

Remember, these dress code policies are not just for the comfort of your employees, they keep you compliant with state and federal law, as well as the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What’s the key to a good dress code policy? Trust.

Trusting your employees to make smart decisions about what they wear to work is the key to building an inclusive and thriving work environment. It may be tempting to make rules about what your employees can wear or what hairstyles are and aren’t acceptable, but it’s best to stay on the safe side. Your employees are smart people, capable of making decisions about what is and isn’t appropriate for work.

Kick your old dress code policy to the curb

If left unchecked, a discriminatory dress code policy can have an impact on your entire company. Employee engagement, legal trouble, recruitment and retention could all suffer from an outdated and discriminatory dress code policy. That’s why it’s important to examine every part of your corporate policy to ensure you're not unintentionally discriminating against people.

Ready to learn more? Check out our guide in diversity in the workplace and browse more articles like this on our human resources hub.

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