While business suits used to be the norm for office attire, most employers can agree that standards of dress have undergone a major transformation over the past several years. Dress codes are generally more relaxed, and employers are now implementing policies to address grooming and appearance, such as the size and location of tattoos and body piercings, not to mention other lifestyle choices.  

Trading business suits for lawsuits: Do workplace dress codes need a makeover?

While business suits used to be the norm for office attire, most employers can agree that standards of dress have undergone a major transformation over the past several years. Dress codes are generally more relaxed, and employers are now implementing policies to address grooming and appearance, such as the size and location of tattoos and body piercings, not to mention other lifestyle choices. 

According to court rulings, an employer has a legitimate business interest in presenting a workforce that is "reasonably professional in appearance." Therefore, an employer has the right to implement grooming and dress policies to protect that legitimate business interest. Employers may not, however, apply the policies in a discriminatory manner. Title VII, state statutes and local ordinances are among the laws that may apply when employees challenge an employer's grooming policy. 

"Employers must have a workplace policy in place if they are going to deal with the issue that addresses grooming and professional appearance in the workplace," urges Samantha Yurman, attorney, senior legal editor for Ceridian HR compliance solutions. "Employers must have employees review and sign these policies. All policies must be applied across the board, regardless of gender, age or race. A religious issue might be a contingency and employers must be prepared on how to address this." 

Appearance, particularly hairstyles, can be related to an employee's religious beliefs. Guidelines presented at the 2006 Society for Human Resource Management's Annual Conference and Exposition in Washington, D.C., stipulate that if an employee claims to have a sincerely held belief, it's permissible for an employer to ask the employee questions about the requirements of the employee's belief in terms of appearance, dress, holidays observed and other pertinent requirements. The employer does not have to accept the employee's proposed accommodation. An employer can consider cost, morale, safety, and other related issues when considering possible accommodations. If accommodating the employee would create an undue hardship for the company, an employer does not have to provide the accommodation. An undue hardship for a religious accommodation can occur when there is more than a minimal cost to the employer. 

Life beyond the cubicle 
In 1928, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that the right most valued by the American people was "the right to be left alone." In addition to dress code concerns, lifestyle discrimination is another area in which privacy rights of employees are in question, particularly with regard to employers eying their behavior outside the workplace. The root of this trend is economics, especially as health insurance premiums continue to rise. Experts analyzing the new 21st National Health Care Trend survey from Buck Consultants predict that the costs for the most popular medical plans are expected to increase by more than 10 percent in 2010. Although several factors contribute to these rising costs, the only factor employers have control over is their employees. 

"Refusing to hire people for reasons unrelated to job performance is unfair and often prevents the company from hiring the best-qualified person," says Yurman. "In some cases, employees who have lifestyles the employer considers unhealthy are required to pay more for their company-sponsored health insurance. And some are giving healthy employees a discount. Either way, one employee is paying more for their health care than another. However, companies should be able to demonstrate that the employee's unhealthy behavior increases employer health care costs by a measurable amount." 

Laying down the law 
A number of federal laws are designed to protect employees from discrimination in the workplace. Some of them include: 

  • Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) -- protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) -- prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) -- protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older
  • Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA) -- prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector and in state and local governments
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991 -- provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination
  • Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) -- prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information about an applicant, employee or former employee

Ceridian can help you take all the worry and work out of compliance with federal and state laws. Our Leave Administration, Work-Life and Employee Retention & Productivity solutions can minimize your risk, ensure compliance and increase employee productivity. Contact us to learn more about reducing your costs and improving your bottom line.