Yes, under certain circumstances. Generally, employers can establish dress codes that apply to everyone, or to all employees within certain job categories. These dress codes can generally require a certain degree of formality or a uniform, and that does not make them discriminatory.
Dress codes can be problematic, however, when they impact a worker’s religious practices, national origin, race or disability, for example.
According to the EEOC, employers are generally allowed to require a uniform dress code, even if some aspects of the dress code conflict with race, national origin, religion or disability. However, impacted employees must be able to ask for a reasonable exception from the dress code. And, employers cannot treat people less favorably because of their membership in a protected group.
Examples of potentially discriminatory dress codes
For example, a company can have a dress code that requires men to be clean shaven, but this could negatively impact some people. African-American men, in many cases, are prone to a skin condition that makes shaving uncomfortable and results in visible skin bumps.
If the dress code does not allow beards, an African-American man in this situation should be able to request an accommodation or exception from the requirement. The company could only deny this accommodation if allowing the beard would create an undue hardship, which mean significant difficulty or expense.
Another example of how a dress code could be discriminatory is if it forbade Muslim women from wearing head scarves that many view as required by their religion. Again, the dress code itself may not be discriminatory on its face. It may merely require workers to go bare-headed. It could become a problem if the women are treated less favorably under the policy or if they were forbidden to wear their religiously-required garments.
From the perspective of national origin, the EEOC points out that it might be discriminatory to allow casual dress but not “ethnic dress.” This is an example of the dress code treating workers from foreign countries less favorably than those from the United States’ majority culture.
A dress code could also be discriminatory if it negatively impacted someone with a disability. For example, some people in wheelchairs might not be able to comply with a dress code requiring that they wear a specific uniform. If they cannot, they would generally be entitled to an accommodation unless granting one would create undue hardship for the company.
If you have experienced dress code discrimination, you may want to file a complaint with your company. However, discuss your situation first with an employment law attorney. Your lawyer can help you make an effective complaint that will limit the possibility of retaliation.