Dress Code Discrimination in The Workplace

Many employers require their employees to follow a dress code. Employers regulate clothing, piercings, tattoos, makeup, nails, hair, and more. For the most part these dress codes are legal as long as they are not discriminatory. For example, men and women can have different dress codes if the dress codes do not put an unfair burden on one gender. However, even if a dress code is discriminatory, an employer does not need to make exceptions for certain employees if doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. For example, if someone’s religion said they could not wear pants but they worked at a factory that required them to wear pants a court would likely side with the employer as the pants are for the employee’s safety. Read below to learn more about your rights with respect to dress codes and grooming.

Yes. In general, employers are allowed to regulate their employees’ appearance, as long as they do not end up discriminating against certain employees. It is very common, for example, for an employer to require his/her employees to wear a uniform so that all employees appear uniform.

Employers’ preferences may change over time, following trends. There may be times when employers as a whole tend to favor casual wear, or times when they necessitate more formal clothing. An employer might ask all their employees to wear the same uniform, or they may tell employees to wear their own clothing but meet certain criteria.

No. An employer generally cannot single you out or discriminate against you. Dress code policies must target all employees, not just you.

No. Employers cannot single out or discriminate against a particular group of persons. Dress code policies must target all employees.

In contrast, however, it is legal for an employer to have different dress codes for men and women. For example, men can be told to keep their hair short and women can be required to have dresses of a certain length. What is problematic is when an employer singles out a person or group by imposing a dress code on them, without assigning any dress code to everyone else.

In contrast, however, it is legal for an employer to have different dress codes for men and women. For example, men can be told to keep their hair short and women can be required to have dresses of a certain length. What is problematic is when an employer singles out a person or group by imposing a dress code on them, without assigning any dress code to everyone else.

Although it is illegal to have dress codes only for one sex and not the other, courts seem to allow employers to require different dress codes for men and women – as long as they do not unfairly burden one sex over the other.


For example, Harrah’s Casino implemented a dress code requiring women to wear extensive make-up, stockings, and nail polish, and required them to curl or style their hair every day. Men, however, only had to maintain trimmed hair and nails. A 20-year female employee did not want to wear makeup because it made her feel like a sex object, and she was subsequently fired by Harrah’s for not complying with the dress code. While this dress code seemed to discriminate against women and impose a greater burden on them, the court held that it was legal to fire the employee because she could not prove that Harrah’s requirements were more burdensome for women Jespersen v. Harrah's Operating Co., Inc., 392 F. 3d 1076 (2004). However, employees who can prove that the dress code is an unequal burden between male and female employees may be able to successfully bring a sex discrimination claim.

Yes. Employers are allowed to enforce different dress code standards for women and men. However, they may not impose a greater burden on either gender.

Usually yes. If looking sexy is part of your place of work’s image, then sexy uniforms can be required. However, there should be a bona fide reason for your employer to require you to wear sexy clothing, and employers are usually not allowed to require sexy uniforms if your workplace has nothing to do with a sexy image. Some unions have successfully fought to prohibit their female members from having to wear sexy uniforms at work. The American Civil Liberties Union  (ACLU) advocates against dress codes that exaggerate sexual stereotypes. It has a section on its website where it encourages workers to share such dress codes with the public.

Requiring revealing or sexual uniforms where no legitimate business purpose exists may constitute sexual harassment. An employer may be liable for either sexually harassing employees or encouraging others (like fellow employees or customers) to sexually harass employees. If you feel that your employer’s dress code has led to sexual harassment and violation of your labor rights, please contact your state department of labor or a private attorney.

Yes and no. In cases where there is discrimination between men and women, such as women having to fit into a small weight range and men being able to fit into a large weight range, the courts have ruled that this is not legal. However, it is not illegal to have a requirement to maintain a certain weight as long as it does not end up in discrimination between men and women.

For example, Borgata Casino announced that it will fire members of its “Borgata Babe” waitstaff if they gain weight. Further, the waitstaff is only given 90 days after pregnancy to get back to their pre-pregnancy weight. The only way that women are allowed a larger uniform, is if they have had a breast augmentation. Some of the waitstaff sued Borgata, but the court ruled that the policy is legal because both male and female waitstaff have weight limits and the waitstaff knew what they were agreeing to when they took the job.

Possibly. Although an employer may deduct the cost of your uniform from your paycheck, it can be illegal under certain circumstances. The Fair Labor Standards Act makes it illegal for your employer to require you to wear a uniform, and then deduct it from your wages IF it causes your wages to fall below the minimum wage standard. Further, it is also illegal for your employer to make any profit on the uniform by deducting it from your wages.

Some states have passed laws prohibiting employers from being able to deduct the cost of uniforms from wages, but these laws are often narrow and do not provide broad protection. However, there have been successful lawsuits challenging employers’ requirements that retail employees wear the clothing sold by their employers, in order to have the store’s “look.”

Yes. Your employer is allowed to tell you how to groom, at the very least to the extent that your employer is simply asking you to be generally clean and presentable on the job

Generally, yes. Facial hair falls in the same spheres as grooming and dress codes; employers can impose reasonable requirements related to appearance. Asking you to shave would generally be considered reasonable. However, you may be exempt from having to comply if you have a medical or religious reason for not being able to shave to your boss’ preference. For example, some skin conditions cause pain when shaving. Even if you work from home, your employer may require you to shave – especially if your job requires you to be on camera.

Yes. Many employers are worried that piercings or tattoos will offend customers and they are allowed to tell you to cover your “body art.” In Cloutier v. Costco (5th Cir. 2004), an employee objected to Costco’s dress code, claiming her eyebrow piercing was part of her religious observance as a member of the “Church of Body Modification.” Her claim was rejected. 

You may be exempt from your employer’s dress code if you have a religious reason. For example, a worker might have religious reasons for wearing a hijab or for not wearing a clothing item that the employer would otherwise require. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. For more information on this topic, visit Workplace Fairness’ page on religious discrimination.

Yes. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, upon request, employers must provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees. A 2015 Supreme Court decision, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, held that employers could unintentionally discriminate if they suspect an employee holds religious views but do not accommodate them – even if the employee did not request the accommodation. In that case, the company illegally discriminated against a prospective employee by denying her a job because her hijab violated the company’s dress code at the time.

You may have a claim under the National Labor Relations Act if the employer attempts to universally ban the wearing of all union insignia, even in a nonunion workplace. Employers are allowed to set neutral policies which prohibit certain types of clothing, such as t-shirts with union logos if the employer bans all t-shirts, if the employer enforces the policy uniformly.

However, several courts and the NLRB have determined that employees have the right to wear union buttons and pins to work, with two exceptions:

  •  if wearing these items creates a safety hazard or,
  • in the case of workers with public contact, if the employees consistently are required to wear uniforms without buttons and pins.

For more information, visit Workplace Fairness’ page on unions

Although employers have a fair amount of latitude in enforcing dress codes, they are not entirely unrestricted. If you believe your employer has discriminatory dress codes, contact your state’s department of labor or contact a private attorney.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.