Question:

I am frustrated with my employees showing up for work looking sloppy and unkempt. Am I within my rights as an employer to discipline these individuals? Can I make a rule against tattoos and body piercings in our workplace? I feel it is unprofessional for my employees to exhibit “body art” but it is so common these days that I am not sure if or how I can regulate it.

Answer:

The issues you are describing could be addressed by implementing a grooming and appearance policy in your workplace. These types of policies specify what grooming and appearance standards are required while your employees are at work, and can specifically address issues such as untidy clothing and visible body art. For instance, employers are generally free to prohibit visible tattoos and body piercings at work by requiring that tattoos be covered, and that body or other jewelry be limited, or not worn at all. Your policy can also address an employee’s general appearance, with requirements regarding acceptable attire, as well as required cleanliness and appearance of clothing. For example, employees can be prohibited from wearing inappropriate clothing (e.g., t-shirts, tennis shoes, etc.) and can be required to ensure that the clothing they wear is neat and unwrinkled.

If you decide to implement this type of policy, you should include a statement in the policy that an employee’s failure to adhere to its guidelines may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination. Employees should also be told that if they arrive for work dressed inappropriately, they may be sent home (without pay) to change into acceptable attire.

Keep in mind that while California law allows employers to regulate the appearance of employees in the workplace, employers need to be careful not to implement policies regarding personal appearance that could be considered discriminatory with regard to an employee’s age, religion, race, national origin, disability, gender, or any other category that is protected by the law. An employer may also be required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, which could include allowing certain garments or other ornamentation to be worn, if doing so would not place an undue burden on the employer.

Despite the foregoing considerations, there are still a number of steps that employers can take in order to ensure that their employees arrive at work dressed appropriately:

  • Implement a personnel policy addressing acceptable appearance standards for your employees while they are at work. Depending on the needs of your business, your policy may address requirements regarding clothing, makeup, hair (including acceptable facial hair for men), jewelry, and tattoos. The policy should not attempt to regulate employees’ off-duty appearance.
  • Include the policy in your employee handbook, so that the requirements are clearly set out, and your employees have something to refer to if they have questions regarding acceptable work attire.
  • Your policy should explain the business reason for any appearance standards that you implement. For example, your policy might state that employees are required to dress neatly in order to convey professionalism, or to ensure that your clients have confidence in the company’s ability to represent their interests effectively.
  • Always be aware of requirements that could have a disparate impact on a legally protected group. For instance, you should avoid placing different requirements on male and female employees. In fact, in California you cannot prohibit women from wearing pants to work. Holding one group of employees to a more exacting standard could be viewed as discriminatory under the law.
  • Remember that you have a legal obligation to accommodate an employee’s legitimate religious beliefs, which could include certain garments and possibly some forms of body art.

Lastly, you may want to consider to what degree your grooming and appearance policy is driven by actual business needs, and how much of it is personal preference. Employers need to keep in mind that applying rigid grooming and appearance standards in the workplace may eliminate certain potential employees from consideration for employment, even though they may be well qualified and could be an asset to the company. For this reason, employers should consider whether and to what extent their grooming and appearance standards are truly necessary before adopting a policy.
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