Navigating your workplace dress code and appearance policy

What happens when an employee’s physical appearance with tattoos and pierced jewelry comes in conflict with the employer’s dress code and appearance policy? What are the limits of employee self-expression in the workplace? Like most controversial legal issues, there are few bright line rules. Title VII and its state counterparts make it unlawful for an employer to make employment decisions based on bias against one’s religion, ethnicity, and other defined protected characteristics.

If an employee wishes to challenge a neutral, uniform, and published workplace policy, the issue should be raised first with management by way of rational and professional request. An employee would be well advised to offer a simple and brief explanation of why compliance with the appearance policy would violate a legitimate religious or cultural practice. If a reasonable request for an accommodation is rejected, it may actually pave the way to a legal battle.

Generally speaking, employers are entitled to establish dress code and appearance policies. To be enforceable as an employment practice, the policies should be committed to writing and applied uniformly regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, and religious beliefs. A neutral policy is one that applied evenly, across-the-board, and does not discriminate either intentionally or by its impact. If an employer’s neutral policy might adversely impact any particular group in a discriminatory fashion, the policy may be unlawful. Governmental employers must ensure that all neutral policies are applied equally.


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  • review copies of employment policies
  • consider compliance
  • consider seeking an accommodation
  • understand that there are different rules for private and public employers
  • research other cases in your area

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  • immediately believe that your appearance is justified by law
  • willfully violate a valid uniform policy
  • miss an opportunity for a productive and positive dialogue
  • let a dispute over your appearance cloud your future job prospects

[publishpress_authors_data]'s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do review copies of employment policies

An employee should always review an employer’s dress code and appearance policies to determine whether there are actually any bans on attire or requirements for appearance in place. For some employers, appearance regulation is a firmly held company policy, for others appearance is not an issue.

Do consider compliance

For the employee, it is always best to approach an employment practice or policy initially with a spirit of compliance and cooperation. If an employer has adopted a uniform anti-tattoo policy or permits only ear piercings, the first thought should always be whether simply complying with the policy really creates an undue burden or hardship.

Do consider seeking an accommodation

If an employee has a legitimate religious or cultural justification for having a particular appearance, a forthright explanation to the employer might assist in allowing for the display of a specific tattoo, attire, or ornamentation otherwise banned by company policy.

Do understand that there are different rules for private and public employers

An employee should understand there are different protections based on whether work is performed for a private or public employer. There is no right of free expression in a private employer’s workplace, whereas public employees have traditionally enjoyed extra protections. A public employer may impose standards and regulations provided that they are applied equally.

Do research other cases in your area

In California, for example, a wait staff employee of a chain restaurant came into conflict with the company’s national policy requiring that all employee tattoos be covered by shirtsleeves (or other appropriate clothing) so they were not visible while on the restaurant floor. The waiter, a practicing Coptic Christian, had an elaborate tattoo with religious statements, which were a reflection of his faith and beliefs. When he was terminated for refusing to cover the statements, he challenged the termination and won. The Court ruled that there was no legitimate reason for refusing to accommodate the employee’s legitimate beliefs. The Court found that the tattoo was part of his personal religious observance and the employer’s policy was too harsh as applied to him.

In Wisconsin, by contrast, a cashier at a national wholesale membership club who sought to wear an eyebrow piercing came in conflict with the company’s policy, which permitted only ear piercings. She challenged the policy before a state administrative agency and won on the grounds that the company’s policy lacked a rational basis. A higher tribunal sided with the employer finding that the employer could justify its piercing prohibition on health and safety grounds, namely its rational interest that interactions with its customers be sanitary.

These decisions reflect a trend toward balancing the interests of both employer and employee in setting standards and avoiding interference with legitimate beliefs and practices.

Do some research in regards to your own state’s employee dress code and appearance policy. You may find a case in your area that has already been ruled in your favor.

[publishpress_authors_data]'s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not immediately believe that your appearance is justified by law

An employee should not violate any written policy or directive simply because he or she believes they are protected by a civil rights statute or other protection. An employer may insist on applying a uniform policy against tattoos, piercings, and other decorative items, and the employer may be fully justified under the law. An accommodation, even for a legitimately held belief, may be properly denied if a request would place an undue burden on the employer.

Do not willfully violate a valid uniform policy

Most employees working for private employers are at-will employees. Essentially, this means the employee may be terminated for any reason or no reason at all so long as the termination is not discriminatory. Wearing attire, tattoos, or other ornamentation which violates an employer’s established written policy is asking for trouble.

Do not miss an opportunity for a productive and positive dialogue

Workplaces are notorious for passive-aggressive dealings between employees and managers. An employee who feels slighted can sometimes adopt a formal, almost legalistic approach to employee relations. Yet, sometimes an open discussion about an employee’s needs and values yields positive results. The walls of holding up a resistance to change can sometimes be brought down by thoughtful and persuasive discussion.

Do not let a dispute over your appearance cloud your future job prospects

While some employers may never change their appearance policies no matter how reasonable the request, an employee would be wise to avoid letting a dispute lead to disciplinary action on the basis of a violation of company policy or insubordination. These generic terms can follow an employee throughout his or her career. The fact that the personnel entries relate to something as harmless as an appearance dispute might not be reflected in the record and


Generally, employers may enact uniform dress code and appearance policies provided they do not discriminate against a particular protected group. An employee should familiarize himself or herself with an employer’s policies as soon as possible. An employee should adhere to the policies unless there is a legitimate religious belief or cultural practice, which is adversely affected. In such instances, the employee should seek an exception to the policy by way of an employer accommodation. The employee should be aware that a request for an accommodation may be denied if it presents an undue burden on the employer.

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