Enforcing a Dress Code without Inciting HR Disasters

As the weather warms up, and employees wear fewer sweaters and more sundresses, dress code complaints to HR skyrocket. Are you confused by what an employer can and can’t require in a dress code? You’re not alone!

Employee Dress Codes: Facially-neutral policies are generally okay…

An employer may establish a dress code for its employees, as long as it’s neutrally applied to and enforced across all employees or all of a certain class of employees (e.g., all front-of-house waitstaff, all factory line employees, etc.).

Policies which require a certain kind of dress – whether a uniform, or a certain “style” – are generally upheld, so long as they aren’t facially discriminatory or accidentally inappropriately impacting some people more than others. Generally, an employer is allowed to prohibit visible piercings or tattoos, to require male employees be clean-shaven and keep their hair short, and to require that employees be “neat and clean” (including prohibiting perfumes and/or enforcing cleanliness and hygiene).man-407095_1280 

In fact, an employer is allowed to insist that its employees dress in a manner appropriate to its particular business, even if that is overtly sexual; courts have upheld the requirement that women wear makeup and comply with weight/measurement requirements if a company demonstrates a “legitimate business purpose” necessitating the requirement.

For example: A casino had a dress code that, among other things, required women to wear makeup and prohibited men from doing so. A female employee who never wore makeup objected to the policy, and sued the casino, claiming that the grooming policy was discriminatory. The court upheld the dress code, finding that it required all employees to maintain a similar professional look and was therefore legal.[1]

As long as your requirements are within accepted social norms for men and women, it is likely that a court will uphold your dress code if you can demonstrate good faith and a legitimate business purpose. Guidelines like “no jeans,” “ties required,” or “no sleeveless tops” are generally enforceable. Guidlines that are vague, or seem arbitrary ("no tight clothing," "no casual tops"), can turn into HR disasters. Try to be as specific and uniform as possible in setting out your dress code guidelines.

…as long as you make exceptions where appropriate.

However, your dress code must allow some flexibility or exceptions for protected reasons, unless allowing an exception or modification would result in undue hardship (i.e., cause an unsafe situation, or dramatically alter the nature of the business conducted). These include:


  • Religious Beliefs: If a dress code conflicts with an employee's religious practices and the employee requests an accommodation.
    • Example: A company prohibits wearing hats or head coverings of any kind, but an employee who is Jewish requests permission to wear a yarmulke.
  • Disability: If an employee requests an accommodation to the dress code because of a disability, whether temporary or permanent.
    • Example: An employee with a broken leg in a cast, who normally is required to wear full-length pants, requests the accommodation of temporarily wearing shorts.
  • Race: Although certain policies may appear neutral, they may impact people of a certain race differently.
    • Example: a disease called psuedofolliculitis barbae makes shaving very painful, but only affects African-Americans; therefore, a policy requiring men to be clean-shaven would prejudice African-Americans suffering from the disease (who could then ask for an exception).

Having a written dress code that is available to and distributed among all employees also helps reduce any uncertainty or claims of unfair enforcement. You should consult with an attorney if you think your company’s dress code may impose a burden on a protected class (race, gender, or other minority), or if you need help drawing up a written policy.


Now that your employees know what to wear, you can focus on other areas to master for effective staffing -- like streamlined, integrated payroll and scheduling systems. StarGarden has custom-built software solutions for specialized industries with diverse payroll, including human resources software for education, payroll systems and cloud-based payroll management for heavy industry, HR software for cross-border workforces, and more! 

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[1] Jespersen v. Harrah's Operating Co., Inc., 444 F.3d 1104 (9th Cir. 2006).