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Workplace dress codes touch on a variety of issues, including workplace safety, freedom of speech, personal hygiene, customer relations, religious freedom, the minimum wage and racial and gender stereotypes.

Employers have a number of legitimate reasons for imposing a dress code, but court rulings have limited their options.

In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employment decisions, including workplace policies, may not target one gender. Generally, courts have interpreted that to mean employers may create dress codes that are different for each sex as long as they don’t unduly burden one gender more than the other.

Note: Twenty states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, while others have adopted similar protections. Some gender identity laws specifically ban discrimination based on gender identity “expression,” meaning discriminating against people because they dress or otherwise identify with the opposite gender. 

Accommodating religious attire 

Company dress codes have spawned numerous religious discrimination lawsuits in recent years. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to make a reasonable effort to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, including their religious attire or grooming habits. The law requires employers to grant wardrobe accommodations so long as they do not pose an undue hardship on their business.

In addition to traditional, organized religions, the law recognizes religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, or that seem unreasonable to others—basically, any religious belief so long as it is “sincerely held.”

Many conflicts with employer dress codes have arisen over hijabs, or head scarves worn by some Muslim women, and beards worn by some men to observe their faiths. Title VII requires employers to make a reasonable effort to accommodate them. Also, dreadlocks, religious tattoos, prayer caps and religious symbols have found protection under Title VII.

Employers may specify that religious clothing be neat, clean and in a color that does not clash with the company uniform, if that applies. And you may ask workers to tuck in loose clothing to keep it from getting caught in potentially dangerous machinery.

Case in point: A young Muslim woman worked at Alamo Rent-A-Car and wore a headscarf in accordance with her religious beliefs. After 9/11, her employer told her to remove the scarf. She refused and was fired. The EEOC sued on her behalf and won an easy victory. The federal judge hearing the case decided the violation was so clear-cut that a jury trial wasn’t necessary. Based simply on the pleadings and Alamo’s admission it fired the woman for wearing the headscarf, the judge ruled the employer was liable. EEOC v. Alamo Rent-A-Car, No. 02-1908 (DC AZ 2006) 

An employer is liable for religious-garb discrimination only if it results in a worker suffering an adverse employment action, such as discharge, denial of a promotion or a demotion. In Ali v. Alamo Rent-A-Center Inc. et al., 246, F.3d 662 (4th Cir. 2001), a young Muslim woman, Ali, was hired as a management trainee. While on the job, she wore a head scarf in accordance with her Islamic beliefs, along with her company uniform. Her supervisor told her she would have to stop wearing the scarf or be transferred to a position in which she would not be in frequent contact with customers. Ali refused to stop wearing the scarf and was transferred. The 4th Circuit concluded that since Ali admitted that her transfer wasn’t an adverse employment action, she didn’t have a case. 

Note: For information on religious garb and Islam, consult the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ booklet, Employer’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices, at www.cair.com.  

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