The workplace dress code is one of the many areas that elicit a rather mixed reaction from people. When it is one’s own home, one need not be too worried about what to wear. When one is attending receptions or other get togethers, the dress code matters, but not to the extent it does at the workplace.
The workplace is where we not only make our careers, but also interact with colleagues and others from other organizations and walks of life. What we wear reflects on our sartorial tastes; it also reflects the attitude we bring to work. The dress we wear shows the way we think about the workplace and our approach to work.
Many people think that the dress need not be synonymous with attitudes, because the work we do matters more than what we wear at work. While this is true, it is also true that our dress being in large part being representative of our attitude; it is necessary to be prudent and sensitive to others’ feelings while deciding what to wear. If the dress we wear to work were not something of importance; where was the need for organizations to bring in something called the dress code?
Although most organizations have set dress codes for their employees, the dress code can be a sensitive issue at times. At other times, it has the potential to be contentious, and even explosive.
The US doesn’t have a legal set of requirements for regulating the dress code at the workplace. In other words, no employee can be forced to wear certain kinds of dress. In fact, on the contrary, public and judicial opinion is in favor of deregulating the dress code. Now, this is the catch. If an employee cannot be forced to wear a certain kind of dress to the workplace, by the same token, can the employee take action against an employee for wearing a dress of her choice? What is the definition of a permissible dress code? Can the employee take the employer to court for not permitting her or objecting to a certain dress?
These are some of the prickly issues relating to workplace dress code. This is an area that HR has to handle with tact, since it is they who come across issues concerning the dress code at the organization. HR needs to be intuitive and legally compliant in devising ways by which such issues can be handled.
When it comes to specifying gender-specific dress codes, the organization has to be prudent, because prohibiting one gender from wearing a certain type of dress that the other gender is permitted to can place it in a sticky position. An employee can take the employer to court and bring a lawsuit alleging discrimination or stereotyping, i.e., deciding which dress represents a particular gender.
And then, there is the bigger, more explosive issue of whether to permit or disallow a person of a religious group from wearing dresses that are associated with their religion. This takes a rather vitriolic tone and has often resulted in bitter exchanges because of the involvement of religion. So, how does HR handle sensitive dress code issues without getting sued?
Before proceeding to a discussion on this topic, it needs mentioning that Title VII applies only to dress worn for religious reasons and does not cover dressing that is done for fashion or for personal, nonreligious reasons, even if that dress happens to be associated with religion. For instance, if a non-Sikh wants to wear a turban, such actions are not covered under this law.
The answer lies in formulating the employee handbook that is clear and precise about what the dress code policy of the organization is. How does HR do this? A very reliable guideline in framing a dress code that prevents the organization from being sued is the provision of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The EEOC clearly states that the employer cannot discriminate based on a number of parameters relating to religion, such as promotion, job allocation, accommodation, etc., but leaves it to the employer to formulate a dress code, so long as it does not, as mentioned, disallow one kind of gender to wear what the other is permitted to.
Using the same yardstick and taking this as the cue, employers can draft a rule and mention it clearly in the employee handbook, which will state what the employer expects in terms of religious dress. It should either allow all employees to wear dress based on or prescribed by or associated with religion or disallow them equally, irrespective of which religion they belong to.
In many societies, the trend is moving towards secular clothing. Yet, the employer can allow religion-associated dress code, but should ensure that this rule applies equally to all religions and all employees. Doing this selectively lands it in trouble. Likewise, it can also ban religious dressing in toto, meaning that when it clearly states the kind of dress that is prohibited at work, it has the freedom to fire an employee who still continues to wear it, on the ground that the employee violated the law set out by the organization.
A very important element of the dress code is that it should not only be mentioned, but explained with utmost clarity in the employee handbook. This should be communicated to the employee at the time of recruitment and HR should obtain the employee’s written assent that she will comply with the dress code set out by the organization and stated in the handbook or manual. This alone places the employer in a strong legal position.
The handbook should have clear description of the religious dresses that are permitted at work and those that are not. The employer should avoid being ambiguous in the wordings of its handbook, because it can lead to misinterpretation and weaken its legal standing. Once matters are cleared at the time the employee is taking up employment, the room for doubt and all the subsequent bitterness will be considerably reduced.