Set in Your Ways or Does Your Dress Code Represent Your Company Culture?

04.29.19Cassi Cummings

Some factors such as your client base or the company’s senior management perspectives can determine the company dress code and what is acceptable.  

There are companies who spend a great deal of time and effort ensuring their brand is seen as “professional” and “presentable” and it is their belief that part of their brand is the way their employees present themselves visually. Who or what deems a look “professional” or “acceptable” and how do we ensure it is not impeding on the rights and freedoms of our workforce?

Our workforce is evolving and growing in ways and directions that are evolutionary and complex all at the same time. The rights of employees and the responsibilities of employers to preserve those rights have changed.  

Over time, the biggest change to an employee’s protected rights and what employers are required to provide is tangible ways in which they are upholding the law and the rights of their employees. Although a company may state that they do not discriminate, it is what actions and tools they have in place that matter.  

For example, an organization can no longer insist and require an employee to dress and look a certain way in the workplace without a clear connection to the business need or risk the negative impact it could potentially have on your brand.    

When we are looking to hire a new employee, we are looking to hire the best, most talented fit for the position. With that said, a company is required to abide by laws that have been put into place to prevent discrimination such as The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Civil Rights Act of 1991, Title VII, the ADA among others.

It is Federal Law that companies adhere to the protections and rights of all employees and do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, genetic information, age, and as time goes on, other protected classes continue to included as instances of discrimination presents itself.  

It is the duty of each and every employer to look beyond the surface of their employees and really understand who their workforce is and what their individual talents are.  

It isn’t rare that you hear or have experienced first hand the uncomfortable conversation, email memo or breakroom chatter in the workplace about hygiene and the need to dress appropriately. There are many opinions and ideas of what constitutes “acceptable”  appearances at work and even, most recently in schools. For example, in 2017, at Vista Murrieta High School in California, 25 girls were pulled from class after being told their dresses were too short.

As one parent proclaimed, “Some of these policies are literally from the last century.”  Which brings one to question, where do we draw the line and who has the right to assert their beliefs and opinions about an individual’s style or for some, their natural born attributes, such as their hair?

In 2019, New York City determined that hair discrimination is now illegal. The New York City Commission on Human Rights instituted a law that bans discrimination by employers, schools and other public places, based upon hairstyle. New York’s City Commission will now be able to fine up to $250,000 in cases where New York residents have experienced discrimination based on their appearances — particularly their hair. It has been deemed in NY City that discrimination based on a person’s hairstyle will no longer be tolerated and violates their rights as humans.  

Typically, in most instances of newly adopted laws and protections, a prompted incident or violation of rights is brought to the forefront by an individual or group who has suffered embarrassment, ridicule or blatant discrimination based on an unfair stereotype or bias. For example, in 2010, the NAACP was requested to review a case in which a black woman’s job offer was rescinded due to her refusal to cut off her dreadlocks.

One may argue that dress code enforcement is necessary and is a matter of employee safety, which can be true, but your ability to uphold such criteria in a court of law should be nothing short of justified and fair.

As humans, we have a right to our own identity and should not be deprived of opportunities, such as gainful employment based on whether we have the “ideal” hairstyle or “proper” appearance which is determined by someone else’s theories and prejudices.    

There is no justification for discrimination or preconceived judgment based on a person’s race, gender identity, appearance, just to name a few, but throughout history and even today, it happens every day in the workplace.  It is up to us as a society to consciously work to change the world we live in and refrain from perpetuating injustice against differences.

Unconscious bias is a real thing and if you’re not careful it will creep into both your team culture and your marketing.  

In an ideal world, we would be free of discrimination and have equal rights for all, but until that day comes, we need to be mindful and vigilant on how we support the rights of all our employees.