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Just about every office has a dress code, whether it's as stringent as 'business professional only' or as lax as 'no flip-flops, please.' And while we might have minor quibbles with office attire requirements here and there, sometimes they seem downright unreasonable and down take into account an employee's special circumstances.
You might think that cancer is one of those special circumstances where employers might relax their dress code standards, but not all bosses are that reasonable. And some of them, apparently, are trying to force cancer patients who've undergone chemotherapy to wear wigs at work. Is that even legal?
The story comes, as many great legal stories do, from the Legal Advice thread on Reddit. As user nab2147 laments:
I am having chemotherapy treatment and today my employer told me I have to wear a wig unless I am in an office with no windows. I was in my office wearing a hat, and today they told me it would be too confusing for my students (Middle and Upper School) if they see me in a hat. Can they force me to wear a wig?
While this teacher's sad situation seems case-specific, it touches on broader topics of employers' rights when it comes to employee appearance at work, and the countervailing protections of ailing or disabled employees. A later comment from the teacher indicates a happy ending to this tale -- "It gets so much better. After much of your advice, I got an email telling me they are sorry for my misunderstanding and I can wear anything I want anytime I want." -- but what would the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) say about future cases?
Under EEOC guidelines, "people who currently have cancer, or have cancer that is in remission, should easily be found to have a disability within the meaning of the first part of the ADA's definition of disability because they are substantially limited in the major life activity of normal cell growth or would be so limited if cancer currently in remission was to recur." As such, employees with cancer may ask for, and receive a reasonable accommodation under the law. And while the ADA doesn't specifically address dress codes or wigs, a requirement that applies only to a cancer-stricken employee could constitute discrimination.
Accommodations under the ADA can be tricky, especially with the added emotional issues surrounding a cancer diagnosis. To make sure your dress code and other office policies are EEOC- and ADA-compliant, talk to an experienced employment attorney.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
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