If you're at your wits' end attempting to come up with a dress code for your employees, requiring uniforms may seem like the easiest way to solve the problem. But before you draft a policy requiring employees to wear uniforms in the workplace, be sure you understand the legal ramifications of uniform policies.
Uniform Versus Street Clothes
The word "uniform" may conjure up images of a policeman or servicewoman's attire, but at its heart, the word is a synonym for "same." That's an important distinction when it comes to crafting a workplace uniform policy. If you plan to require your employees to wear very workplace specific attire -- i.e. a waiter's tuxedo, bright yellow coveralls, a clown costume -- then your legal obligations are different than if you plan to ask all employees to wear black pants and red shirts. The difference? One is clearly a uniform for all intents and purposes, while the other requires wearing street clothes that provide a uniform appearance for all employees. That's an important distinction when it comes to the legalities of workplace policy.
The Buck May Stop Here
Before you draft that policy requiring your employees to dress in tuxedos, consider what the Department of Labor and any applicable state and federal agencies mandate where uniforms are required. The Department of Labor Fact Sheet No. 16 states that "if the wearing of a uniform is required by [state, local or federal] law, the nature of a business, or by an employer, the cost and maintenance of the uniform is considered to be a business expense of the employer." In other words, if your employees are required by law to wear a uniform, then the cost must be paid by you as employer. If uniforms are not mandated, and you expect your employees to bear the cost, you cannot reduce your employees' wages below the federal minimum wage in doing so.
Expanding on the Uniform, Encroaching on the Law
If you are considering requiring your employees to wear uniforms, then it's highly likely you are considering addressing other aspects of employee appearance, as well. Take care how you expand upon your workplace uniform policy -- you may inadvertently run afoul of the law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises that "while an employer may require all workers to follow a uniform dress code even if the dress code conflicts with some workers' ethnic beliefs or practices, a dress code must not treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin." Other accommodations, such as for religious practices or disabilities, should be taken into consideration unless doing so would, in the words of the EEOC "result in undue hardship."
Phrases to Avoid at All Costs
When drafting a workplace uniform policy, specificity is key, especially if you plan to require street clothes-type uniforms. The more subjective the language, the easier it is for employees and managers alike to misinterpret your policy. Consider this oft-used uniform/dress code phrase: "skirts should be black or tan, in an appropriate length and be considered business attire." Everything from color to length to style is addressed, and yet these phrases are subjective enough that they mean little. Contrast with this: "skirts should be be knee-length to ankle-length. Please consult your employee handbook for examples of appropriate colors and skirt styles." Providing examples, rather than vague phrases, makes your policy clear and concise.
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