Workplace dress codes have relaxed over the past few decades, leaving some employers unsure about how to set dress standards that are both in line with the company image and in compliance with the law. While federal law generally allows employers to establish dress codes which apply to all employees or to employees within certain job categories, there are some general parameters employers must work within.


If you're unsure about whether your employee dress code violates federal law or if you'd like to create a new dress code policy for your workplace, consider the following do's and don'ts:     

1. DO Make Sure Your Policies are Clearly Communicated

As with any workplace policy, your dress code will more likely be observed if it is communicated in a clear and unambiguous manner. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), your dress code policy might include:


  • Your company's philosophy about the image it wishes to present;

  • A list of appropriate business attire for both men and women;

  • When formal business attire is required;

  • What attire is prohibited; and    

  • How the policy will be enforced.


Make sure your policy contains examples of what is, and is not, permissible. For example, if your workplace allows "business casual" clothing, does that include tailored jeans? If you allow "dress-down Fridays," are sandals or t-shirts acceptable?


Your policy should be included in the employee handbook, if your company uses one. New policies, or changes to existing policies, should also be disseminated by email, posters, or whatever means your company regularly uses to notify employees of general office rules.

2. DON'T Single Out Specific Groups of Employees

An employment policy that applies to everyone can still beEmployee Dress Codes illegal if it has a negative impact on the employment of certain groups and is not job-related or necessary to the operation of the business. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers the following guidance for employers subject to the laws the EEOC enforces:


  • A dress code must not treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin. For example, a dress code that prohibits certain kinds of ethnic dress, but otherwise permits casual dress would treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin.

  • If a dress code conflicts with an employee's religious practices and the employee requests an accommodation, the employer must modify the dress code or permit an exception to the dress code unless doing so would result in undue hardship.

  • If an employee requests an accommodation to the dress code because of his or her disability, the employer must modify the dress code or permit an exception to the dress code, unless doing so would result in undue hardship.


According to the SBA, companies are allowed to establish different policies for men and women as long as they do not purposely discriminate against one gender. Policies that follow traditional social norms and incorporate generally accepted attire for each group are likely permissible.

3. DON'T Deduct for Uniforms Unless Net Wages Exceed Minimum Wage

Uniforms present unique challenges for employers. Generally, if an employer requires that employees wear a particular color, such clothing would not be a uniform. However, if a specific type and style of clothing is required or if clothing containing the employer's emblem or logo must be worn at work, such clothing would generally be considered a uniform.


The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not allow uniforms to be included as wages. If you require your employees to bear the cost of their uniforms, their wages may not fall below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In addition, the cost of the uniform may not cut into an employee's overtime compensation as required by the FLSA.

4. DO Enforce Appropriate Safety Dress Measures

As an employer, you must assess your workplace to determine if hazards are present that require the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE is designed to protect workers from serious workplace injuries or illnesses resulting from contact with workplace hazards.


Besides face shields, safety glasses, hard hats, and safety shoes, PPE includes a variety of devices and garments such as goggles, coveralls, gloves, vests, earplugs, and respirators. If hazards are present, you must select PPE and require workers to use it, communicate your selection decisions to your workers, and select PPE that properly fits your workers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers a fact sheet and other guidance on the use of PPE.


For More Information

Your state labor office may offer additional guidance on employee dress codes specific to your state. Our sample Employee Handbook contains a model dress code policy that you can tailor to the needs of your workplace.


And don't miss our free "Must-Do" HR Checklist, a great resource for reviewing other key practices to keep your company HR compliant!


Image Credit: O'hAodha


Topics: Human Resources, Discrimination, Employee Safety

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