- An employer can fire you for any reason, or no reason, if you're an at will employee
- Many wrongful discharge lawsuits have courts considering updates to the at will employment doctrine
- Religious discrimination limits your employer's right to fire you for violating a dress code
Who has the right to tell you what you can or can't wear to work? Does your employer have the right to enforce a dress and grooming code at work? The answer: it depends.
EEOC vs. Dress Codes
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently ruled that Abercrombie & Fitch violated a Muslim woman's religious rights when it refused to hire her because she wears a head covering for religious reasons. Abercrombie & Fitch argued that the headscarf violated their "look policy."
In another case, a white police officer in Philadelphia was disciplined for coming to work with his hair in cornrow braids. Although it was reported that a number of black officers were permitted to wear the hairstyle, the police department disputes that claim.
A Philadelphia police department spokesman stated that the braids violated department standards that require officers' hats to fit in a military manner over their hair. The spokesman further stated that the grooming policy was enforced against all police officers regardless of race.
As discussed below, the right of an employer to tell you how to dress at work depends in large part on the applicable law and the facts of the individual case.
At Will Employment
In the United States, employers generally have the right to fire an employee for any reason, including your employer's disapproval of your dress or grooming habits. On the flip side, an employer can't force you to work for him or her. This is known as the at will employment doctrine. Exceptions to this rule include:
- The existence of an employment contract between you and your employer that contains a definite time of employment (i.e., one year) or a provision that you can only be fired for "good cause"
- Religious discrimination, as discussed below
The United States is the only major industrial power that maintains the at will employment doctrine. Most other leading nations have laws that require an employer to provide a "good cause" reason before they can fire an employee.
In response to a large number of wrongful discharge lawsuits, some courts have begun to rule in favor of employees discharged without cause on additional grounds, including: (1) breach of an implied contract; (2) breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and (3) violation of public policy.
An employee who believes she was wrongfully discharged due to an employer's dress and grooming policy may sue under any of the above theories of liability. However, each case is viewed on its own merits. There are no clear legal guidelines relating to employer dress codes and the at will employment doctrine.
Religious Dress and Grooming Habits
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, an employer is required to make adjustments to an employee's or prospective employee's work environment that will allow him or her to observe a sincerely held religious practice. This is known as the reasonable accommodation provision.
An employee or prospective employee who seeks a religious accommodation must make the employer aware that:
- There is a need for an accommodation
- The accommodation is requested due to a conflict between religion and work
The reasonable accommodation requirement extends to religious practices concerning dress and other personal grooming habits. Religious dress may include clothes, head or face coverings, jewelry or other items.
For example, an employer may be required to accommodate a Muslim employee's request to wear her headscarf; a Hindu employee's request to wear her bindi, a religious forehead marking; and an Orthodox Jewish employee's request to keep a beard when the employer has a no facial hair policy.
But this doesn't mean that an employee can wear anything he or she wants. It depends on the circumstances of the particular case, such as the type of business and the employer's conduct. An employer's dress code and grooming rules will likely be upheld if the rules are applied consistently among all employees and involve legitimate issues, such as safety concerns.
In addition, an employer isn't required to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs and practices if doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer's legitimate business interests. For example, there may be limited situations in which the need for uniformity of appearance is so important that modifying the dress code would pose an undue hardship. However, even in these situations, a case-by-case determination is needed.
Questions for Your Attorney
Is an employer risking legal action if it refuses an employee's request for reasonable accommodation for clothing or apparel if the employer's refusal is based on a safety concern? What conditions rise to the level of a safety concern?
What if an employee has a medical condition, such as an allergy or skin condition that prevents wearing the usual uniform for a job? What about shoes?
If an employee handbook has a disclaimer that it isn't a contract, but employees are required to follow its rules or contents, doesn't the employer have any obligation under the handbook, or is it all one-sided?