Balancing Dress Codes With Religious Beliefs

Employers will use dress and appearance standards to create an employment “brand” for who they are, their culture and their values. As society becomes more casual in its dress standards, employers can find that instituting a dress code will not only draw resistance from some employees, it can land the company in the middle of a religious discrimination lawsuit.

Mark Twain said it best: you only have one opportunity to make a good first impression.

Society has progressed a lot farther downstream since Samuel Clemens made that statement.  However, if you want to watch an organization freak out, announce that you are instituting a dress code.

I know, we tried it in the early 1990s, and employee attitudes have not changed much since then.  People do not like being told what they have to wear or how they are to look, within certain tolerable norms.  Now, add to that a potpourri of legal standards surrounding accommodating sincerely held religious beliefs, and you have the attorney full employment act.

The early 1990s was the dot com era, and business attire was not flying off the haberdashery racks at that time.  We were an audit agency where often our people were meeting with corporate accounting executives and high ranking military officers, and our regional director expected our people to dress in a professional manner consistent with what you would find in CPA firms.

The driving force behind a more relaxed attire was that Raytheon’s Board of Directors voted to go business casual as did many of the other defense contractors we audited.  Similarly, our personnel felt they should be allowed to do the same.  Since we were collectively organized, the imposition of a dress code was negotiable.

Now, I can easily identify what is business casual for men, but for women I was out of my “Yes to the Dress” league.  It was far easier to identify what was not acceptable in terms of tank tops, jeans, beachwear, etc.

Needless to say we found ourselves at impasse, and the person sent in from the Impasses Panel was Mary Jacksteit, former Deputy General Counsel for the AFGE.  Our expectations from her was excellent material for an Arlo Guthrie or Bob Dylan tune, as we did not anticipate an unbiased hearing.  We were not disappointed.  While we ended up with a livable arrangement, it was far from what the regional director hoped for.  His idea of business casual was a sports coat and tie as opposed to a three piece suit.

Today, tattoos and body piercings are fashion statements, and the edges on the envelope are being pushed a lot farther than what they were 25 years ago.  Even though trends towards more relaxed dress codes in offices are more prevalent today, it does not mean that professionalism should be discarded.

In a 2008 survey by, 41 percent of 2,765 U.S. employers surveyed responded that employees who are well dressed or appear more professional tend to be promoted more often than others in the organizations.  A person’s dress can play an important role as to how others perceive an organization.  Perception is often reality, and a more professional image often conveys a motivated or dedicated image.

In the 1990s law firms in Boston adopted a more relaxed appearance in dress because many of their customers were of the dot com generation, and accepted business casual.  That has since changed for them where the more traditional look is back in vogue.  It is a lot easier for organizations without a union to do that.

A third of the above respondents to the survey also revealed they have had to send employees home for dressing inappropriately, and many have adopted, as we did, a do not wear list as to what was unacceptable.  Nevertheless, there will always be those who will attempt to test the elasticity of the envelope even more.

Employers will use dress and appearance standards to create an employment “brand” for who they are, their culture and their values.  Body art and body piercings can lead to stereotyping and negative consequences, not just for the wearer, but the entire organization.

This was one conclusion in a Harris Poll released February 23, 2012, where body art is still associated with deviant or rebellious behavior.  This is where the friction and problems start to occur for employers.  A complete prohibition or restriction could lead an organization to appear in court or before the EEOC as it may be contrary to law in terms of an accommodation for a sincerely held religious belief.

Several eastern-based religious practices include body piercing around the nose and ears.  Unless an employer can demonstrate that such body piercings present a grave safety circumstance, the probability of prevailing in a Title VII religious discrimination complaint is not high.

As I write this, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision today in favor of a young Muslim woman, and against the clothier Abercrombie & Fitch, because she was denied employment for her wearing a head scarf.  An appeals court had previously sided with Abercrombie & Fitch, because during the employment interview Abercrombie noted that her attire was not discussed as a need for a religious accommodation.  Yet, in another jurisdiction Abercrombie & Fitch settled a similar case in California for $71,000.  This past April the company abandoned its “Look Policy” for employees.

This is why the topic of an appearance policy is so difficult to establish and/or enforce.  Aside from potentially violating religious or national origin accommodations, organizations are certainly free to establish an appearance policy that prohibit tattoos, or body piercings that are inconsistent with its efforts to create a particular brand or image.  This is often easier for law firms, public accounting firms, bankers and financial brokers, than it is for others.

Sometime ago I was doing some training for managers at a National Park component, and I was asked for my opinion as to whether the Park Service could require one of its Rangers, who was a Sikh, to wear the traditional Smokey Bear hat, as opposed to his cultural turban or pagri.  My advice was that to force him to wear the traditional Park uniform could be grounds for a religious discrimination complaint.  As an alternative, see if dyeing a pagri to match the traditional Park uniform colors would be a satisfactory accommodation to both.  This is the interactive dialogue organizations must pursue if they expect to comply with the law, while still maintaining some organizational image.

Today’s workplace is becoming more multi-cultural, and multi-generational than ever before.  What is proper attire, and look, really depends upon the environment, and outside of a sincerely held religious belief, an accommodation has to work both ways.

About the Author

Since retiring in 2011 after nearly 40 years of federal service, Bob Dietrich has been active in training supervisors and HR staff on FLSA and FMLA. He has a three-day course that he can bring to your agency, and he may be reached through the website.