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Implementing a Dress Code in Your Workplace: Legal Considerations

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

Thinking about rolling out a dress code at your workplace? Before you dive in, there's some legal stuff you should know.

Title VII and Workplace Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Title VII applies to all private employers with 15 or more employees, to state and local government employers with 15 or more employees, and to the federal government as an employer. Although it is often associated with employment discrimination in the context of firing, hiring, promotions, and harassment, it also affects workplace rules and policies such as dress codes. Under this law, and various similar state laws, employers cannot impose dress codes that discriminate against employees based on any of the "protected characteristics."

Sex and Gender Discrimination in Dress Codes

Many professionals may be used to dress codes that enforce gender norms, particularly those that have long been working in the legal industry, which can be a bit traditional. Lawyers that have been working at more conservative law firms have probably been asked to stick to a dress code of suits and ties for men and skirts and heels for women. Though these kinds of gendered dress codes were once standard, in recent times, they have been called out as problematic -- not only by society, but also civil rights law.

The Supreme Court took up this issue quite some time ago, in a 1989 case called Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. In that case, an employee, Ann Hopkins, was a highly qualified accountant at the firm Price Waterhouse, but she was often criticized by her male colleagues for her short hair, masculine attire, and assertive personality. SCOTUS held that Price Waterhouse had discriminated against Hopkins on the basis of sex stereotypes when they denied her partnership because she did not fit their preconceived notions of what a woman should look and act like.

This case had important implications for dress codes in the workplace, establishing hat employers cannot impose dress codes that discriminate against employees on the basis of sex. Employers cannot have different dress codes for men and women if the dress codes impose different burdens based on your sex or gender.

For example, an employer may be able to require all employees to dress more formally by requiring that men wear a suit and tie and women wear a formal dress, skirt suit, or pantsuit. But the employer cannot allow women to wear casual clothes while requiring men to wear more formal clothes. On the other hand, the employer probably could not get away with requiring women to wear heels while allowing men to wear equally formal but more comfortable shoes.

The above restrictions on sex discrimination in dress codes also shape the law around requiring gender conformity in dress codes. Employers can legally implement gender-specific dress codes, but they can't force employees to conform or identify with a certain gender associated with their sex. As a general guideline, employers should not base the rationale for their dress code on norms about "femininity" and "masculinity."

Religious Beliefs

Employers cannot require employees to wear uniforms that are discriminatory or that violate their religious beliefs. For example, an employer cannot force their female employees to wear pants if their religious beliefs require them to wear skirts. An employer also cannot prohibit an employee from wearing a religious head covering, such as a hijab or a kippah.

Race Discrimination and CROWN Acts

Some types of discrimination are more obvious than others. It probably surprises nobody that an employer can't require different standards of dress or grooming for Black employees and white employees. Obviously, you can't make all of your Black employees wear red and your white employees wear green. But there are more nuanced cases which may be unclear to some. Hair and hairstyles, for example, can be a tricky issue to navigate within race discrimination.

Although no federal legislation has yet passed, plenty of states have passed their own "CROWN" Acts, which aim to prevent discrimination based on hair texture and "protective hairstyles" in workplaces and schools. Protective hairstyles are hairstyles that are worn to protect natural hair from damage, such as locs, braids, twists, Bantu knots, and afros.

CROWN Acts are important because they protect people from being discriminated against for their hair, which is often seen as a racial marker. Black people, especially Black women and girls, are more likely to be discriminated against for their hair than people of other races. CROWN Acts can help to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace and school environment for all people, regardless of their hair style. For example, under such laws, a Black woman cannot be fired from her job for wearing her hair in locs and a Black man cannot be denied a job interview because he has an afro.

CROWN Acts are still relatively new, but they have already made a difference in the lives of many people. So, far, the following states have passed CROWN acts within their own jurisdictions: California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, New York City, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.


As you may have noticed in most settings within the service industry, it's generally legal to require employees to wear uniforms. However, the rules governing uniforms are still subject to much of the same checks on discrimination and disparate treatment as the considerations regarding dress codes mentioned above.

Apart from discrimination concerns, employers have generally a good deal of freedom to choose uniforms for employees. However, there are a few exceptions to that general rule. For example, employers cannot require employees to wear uniforms if they are not required for the job. For example, an employer cannot require an office worker to wear a uniform if they do not have any contact with customers.

In addition, employers cannot require employees to wear uniforms that are unsafe or that violate their privacy. For example, an employer cannot require an employee to wear a uniform that is too revealing or that does not allow them to use the restroom safely. It should also be noted that employers cannot require employees to pay for their uniforms if doing so would cause their wages to fall below the minimum wage.

Tips to Keep in Mind

Here are some additional things that employers should keep in mind about dress codes and uniforms in the workplace. The dress code or uniform policy should be written down, and worded in a way that is clear and easy to understand. You should be willing to make accommodations for employees with disabilities or religious beliefs. You should also give your employees reasonable notice of any changes to the uniform policy. And this last one hopefully goes without saying: you should never use uniforms as a way to punish or harass employees. By keeping the above guidelines in mind, you as an employer can ensure that your workers are dressed to standards in a way that's fair and legal.

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