How much can you do – and not do – about your employees’ personal appearance and grooming? Take this quiz and find out! As usual, I’ll have the answers at the end, so if you get one wrong, no one but you will know.
QUESTION 1: If I operate in a jurisdiction that doesn’t have a law against appearance discrimination, I can make any rules about appearance and grooming that I want.
QUESTION 2: My employees are required by OSHA to wear masks on the job. The masks are no good unless there is a proper seal around the employee’s mouth and nose. Since facial hair prevents a good seal from forming, we have a no-beard policy. I have one employee who is Sikh and wears a beard for religious reasons. What should I do?
A. Let him keep his beard and pray that the mask will work without the proper seal.
B. Tell him he has to shave the beard off or lose his job.
C. Meet with him and explain that the mask is required by OSHA and the safety rationale for the rule. Talk with him about reasonable accommodations, which might include use of a different type of mask that works with a beard, or transfer to another position that doesn’t require use of a mask. After you’ve talked and perhaps consulted with vendors or safety experts, make a determination of what to do that won’t violate the law or endanger his safety while accommodating his beliefs as much as you can.
QUESTION 3: I have an employee with terrible body odor. As far as I know, it’s not because of any medical condition — I think she just doesn’t bathe or do her laundry often enough. Several employees have come to me and complained about it. What should I do?
A. If you say something you’ll hurt her feelings, so grin and bear it, and tell your employees to do the same.
B. Get one other trustworthy person, preferably from Human Resources, and meet with her privately. As gently as possible, let her know that her odor is creating a problem in the workplace. If she offers a medical explanation, listen with an open mind. You may have to make reasonable accommodations if there is a medical cause, but before you do that, you should be allowed to ask for a doctor’s note and permission to communicate directly with her doctor. If there is no medical issue, then simply tell her that she needs to address the problem.
C. Anonymously leave a gift basket of deodorant on her chair, and hope she takes the hint.
QUESTION 4: We are a conservative office. We’ve had a lot of retirements in the past few years, and to replace them, we’ve hired some young “hipsters.” The kids are working out really well, but many of them have facial piercings and tattoos. We’ve told them to wear long sleeves that cover the “tats” on their arms and shoulders, but we have a few who have tattoos on their hands, necks, and even faces. And of course the nose and lip rings show, too! What can we do? I don’t want to lose these good employees, but our office needs to project a professional image.
A. Tell your “hipsters” in a nice way that they must leave the nose and lip rings at home and that “tats” must be covered by sleeves and necklines as much as possible. With the tats that can’t be covered up, choose your battles and act accordingly. Reasonably accommodate any employee whose tattoos or piercings have a religious basis.
B. Think young! Let the tats and nose rings run wild!
C. Call your retirees and try to talk them into coming back to work.
QUESTION 5: We are also a conservative office. We require all employees to dress in professional attire, meaning suits (with pants) and ties for men, and dresses or suits with skirts, heels, and pantyhose, for women. Men are expected to have their hair neatly trimmed, above the collar, and we don’t allow beards or mustaches. Women are expected to have their hair neatly groomed (any length is ok) and wear makeup to work. Recently, somebody told me that our policy might not pass legal muster. Are they right?
- FALSE. Even if your jurisdiction doesn’t prohibit appearance discrimination per se, you may violate other anti-discrimination laws based on your appearance code and the way that you apply it. Employees sometimes fail to meet employer appearance guidelines because of race, sex, national origin, religion, or disability.
- C, of course. This is a religious accommodation issue and should be treated as such. However, if the beard would cause your company to be in violation of OSHA requirements and if no alternative to the mask is available, then you would probably be justified in transferring the employee to another position or, if that isn’t possible, terminating his employment.
- B, of course.
- A, for most employers. If employees are wearing tattoos and nose rings as a matter of personal style, then you can enforce your appearance code — unless you are in a jurisdiction that prohibits appearance discrimination per se. In that case, B would be a better answer.
- YES. Some jurisdictions, including New York City, prohibit gender-specific dress and appearance codes. Even if you’re not in one of those jurisdictions, requiring only women to do their hair and wear makeup might be a form of sex discrimination or unlawful stereotyping. It’s probably better these days to simply require “professional business attire” without going into detail. Ninety-nine percent of your work force will know exactly what that means. But you’re leaving yourself a bit of “wiggle room” if you someday have a woman who wants to wear pantsuits (who ever heard of such a thing?) or a transgender employee who wants to dress according to the gender with which he or she identifies — or if you move your office to NYC.
As you can see, we will do anything to avoid having to talk about the election! But in case you missed it, here are our 2016 Employer’s Guide to Employee Voting Rights and my comparison of Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s views on labor and employment law issues. Hang in there – it will be over soon!
And then we’ll really be in trouble.