Enforce dress and grooming code tactfully to avoid trouble

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

You can’t legislate good taste. But that shouldn’t stop you from having and enforcing dress and grooming rules. Unless your company seeks to cultivate an alternative image, you can and should prohibit sloppy or distracting clothing and outrageous hairstyles and makeup (and ban outright clothing that creates a danger).

How you enforce those rules, however, can make the difference between needless litigation and a productive workplace.

Don’t joke around about an employee’s dress or style. Instead, call the person into a meeting and discuss the problem in private.

Recent case: Veronica Long worked as a records technician for a U.S. Coast Guard clinic. She sued for discrimination, claiming her supervisors hassled her about her dress and grooming.

Long told the court that one supervisor snapped a photo of her wearing one outfit, “looked her over” and complained that her outfits were not appropriate for work. Once a supervisor left a note on her desk telling her, “By the way, nice outfit today. Love the pinstripes. Looks sharp.”

The court dismissed her sex discrimination lawsuit, concluding that the comments weren’t severe enough to affect her performance or constitute sexual harassment. (Long v. Columbia-Arora Joint Venture, No. 06-06545, ND CA, 2007)

Advice: This entire lawsuit could have been avoided if the supervisors hadn’t snapped photos or left comments on Long’s desk. A better approach would have been to counsel her privately—with at least one witness—about the dress policy and expectations at the office.

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