One of my familial responsibilities is the weekly grocery shopping. As is my Sunday custom, I made my way to the local supermarket yesterday afternoon. The trip proceeded as it does every week – until I got to the front of the checkout line. I was greeted by what can only be described as a mess for a cashier. She was large in stature, but that wasn’t her problem. Partly covering her girth was a dirty t-shirt that resembled a piece of deli counter Swiss cheese. Her rolls showed through the holes in her shirt. And, as if the appearance wasn’t bad enough, she emitted an odor that suggested that she could not tell me on what aisle I could find the soap. As I wondered whether to hold my breath or ditch my cart, I decided to write on employee dress and grooming standards.
An employer has the right to require that its employees follow reasonable workplace appearance, grooming, and dress standards. If an employee runs afoul of such a rule, under most circumstances the employer can appropriately discipline the employee. This general rule, however, is sometimes limited by EEO laws:
The best practice is a gender-neutral dress and grooming standard. An employer may impose a different standard on men and women, but only if neither gender is disproportionately burdened by the gender-specific rule. If you choose to impose a non-neutral policy, it is best to ensure that it is motivated by a legitimate business interest and is not intended to favor one gender over another.
Transgendered employees pose a particular problem for employers. A dress or grooming rule that discriminates against an employee for failing to adhere to a sex-based stereotype may run afoul of Title VII.
If an employee dresses or grooms a particular way because of a sincerely held religious belief, an employer may have to accommodate the employee unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship.
As with all employment rules, it is best to have an employment lawyer review your policy before you roll it out to employees.