There are no federal laws that specifically direct what can and can’t legally be worn at work; that decision is largely left to the employer. However, federal and state laws strictly disallow discrimination in the workplace, including discrimination involving work attire. Although state laws may vary, if an employee’s clothing is treated in a prejudicial fashion, she has federal law to back her up and provide protection.
The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes a section entitled "Title VII,” which prohibits employers with at least 15 workers from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Additionally, an employee who complains of these actions against her is protected against retaliation if an investigation occurs. The law is in effect even before an employee is hired, if she is being considered for a job. Title VII is specific about discrimination for work attire when religion and gender are involved.
Title VII forbids employers to refuse to hire an applicant based on what she’s wearing if the clothing is a necessary part of her religion. After an associate is hired, she cannot be discriminated against for wearing clothing that is part of her religion. For example, if an employee shows up at work wearing a religious head covering, such as a scarf, the employer is not allowed to take disciplinary action or fire the worker based on wearing the scarf. The employee can ask for a “reasonable accommodation,” and her boss is then obligated under law to take action to meet the accommodation. For instance, if the employee’s religious scarf is posing a safety hazard during work activity, and she asks for a reasonable accommodation, the employer can transfer the worker to another department where safety will not be an issue. If an employer disregards the law, the door is open for a lawsuit involving religious discrimination. The only situation in which a request for such an accommodation can be denied is when it will cause undue hardship for the employer.
Title VII also provides protection from gender discrimination, including when it involves work clothing. The law does not allow an employer to treat women differently than men regarding attire. For example, an employer cannot force women to dress in ways that might encourage stereotypes, such as making them wear tops with plunging necklines. In addition, the law allows a person to express her gender identity to others through accepted characteristics, like wearing her hair long. She also can dress in keeping with her gender, such as wearing dresses if she wants. Noncompliance with Title VII in this regard can set the stage for a sex discrimination lawsuit against the employer. Work clothing is expected to conform with accepted social customs -- women can wear dresses, men can wear slacks -- although some states, such as California, enforce laws allowing women to wear pants as well, thereby deviating a bit from traditionally accepted social norms.
Employers can enforce dress codes and still comply with the law. The dress code, however, must not be based on religion or gender, and must be enforced fairly and equally between both women and men to avoid charges of discrimination. For example, displaying tattoos at work is generally not protected by federal or state discrimination laws. This means that, if an employee flouts a dress code that doesn’t allow visible tattoos, that employee can be legally fired from her job. If, however, the tattoos represent a required part of a religious practice and the worker is released from employment in connection with the tattoos, there may be the potential for a religious discrimination lawsuit backed up by Title VII.
Michelle Reynolds has been writing about business, careers and art since 1993. She was the publisher of a newsletter, “Working Parents Monthly," as well as a graphic design guidebook. Reynolds also served as human-resources director at a resort/spa for eight years. She is an artist and promotes the arts and other artists through ElegantArtisan.com, a website she developed and maintains.