Updating Your Handbook – Grooming and Professional Appearance Standards

Adequate hygiene and professional appearance of employees is important to most employers. Many handbooks address standards surrounding hygiene and dress; however, employers may benefit from taking recent case examples into account when setting these standards.

For instance, the EEOC recently settled a lawsuit it had filed against an Orlando staffing company in the hospitality industry after the company required an employee to cut his dreadlocks in order to meet a client’s grooming standards. The problem? The employee was a Rastafarian who claimed that he wore dreadlocks as part of a sincerely held religious belief. The EEOC charged that the company had violated the employee’s Title VII right against religious discrimination and failed to provide a reasonable accommodation.

As part of the settlement, the company will have to pay $30,000 in damages to the employee, adjust its policy manual and employee handbook to include a clear policy providing a reasonable accommodation covering religious and disability-based requests, and provide management training.

In addition, employers may recall the recent Supreme Court opinion in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, where the EEOC alleged that Abercrombie violated Title VII when it refused to hire a Muslim teenager after she appeared for a job interview wearing a head scarf, which conflicted with Abercrombie’s dress code.  Though Abercrombie argued it was not aware of the applicant’s need for accommodation and did not know the applicant wore the headscarf for religious reasons, the Supreme Court found that an employer does not have to have actual knowledge of a person’s religious practice to violate Title VII if the employer makes an adverse decision against an applicant or employee with an illegal motive related to religious practice.

Robert Weisberg, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Miami District Office, stated, “The Supreme Court’s opinion in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch reminds us that we must be vigilant in protecting sincere religious expression in the workplace. This is particularly important where the Commission has recognized ‘the increasing complexity of employment relationships and structures, including temporary workers, staffing agencies, and independent contractor relationships’ in an ever more on-demand economy.”

In order to protect against a charge of religious or disability discrimination, employers should include a clear policy allowing for reasonable accommodation within its dress and grooming standards. However, in today’s legal climate, that may not be enough as demonstrated by Abercrombie. Employers should ensure that management is fully trained to handle issues of employee grooming and dress to avoid unwanted attention from the EEOC.

Employers should also bear in mind recent cases involving different dress codes for males and females and the potential for a claim of gender or gender identity discrimination. Further, the National Labor Relations Board has litigated employer limitations on buttons and logos, asserting such restrictions constitute an unlawful restriction on employees’ right to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act.

Employers should carefully review existing policies and complete regular management/supervisory training to reduce potential liability in the area of grooming and appearance standards.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.