In today’s workplace, dress codes are an often overlooked part of creating a diverse and inclusive environment. Many companies attempt to adopt a “one size fits all” dress code but are unaware that these can exclude many employees. And while the EEOC lays out specific guidelines to avoid this, they are not always followed.
When you don’t take into account the needs of each employee--whether it’s religion, gender, culture etc—it can lead to workplace conflicts. Below are five necessary components to help you create an inclusive dress code that promotes diversity and creates a comfortable environment for all employees.
Make sure that your dress code does not exclude employees with disabilities. For example, you might require employees to wear dress shoes while on the job. But if an employee has diabetes, they might not be able wear dress shoes without severe irritation.
Another example the EEOC provides states that if an “employee with quadriplegia can’t wear his uniform because he can’t use zippers or buttons and because it causes discomfort when he sits in his wheelchair” an accommodation will have to be made. While both of these examples can be handled on a “case by case” basis, you should take into account potential issues while crafting your dress code and ensure you can easily make accommodations.
One commonly overlooked aspect of a dress code is hairstyles. Not everyone has the same type of hair, and for many people, hairstyles can be an important part of their culture or religion. For example, in 2010 Chastity Jones took Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) to court after they said they couldn’t hire her “with the dreadlocks.” While the court ruled in favor of CMS, Jones believed she had her rights infringed upon.
In the workplace, it’s very important to respect an individual’s freedom of expression—even if it’s not a legal issue. A restrictive policy like the one at CMS might discourage diverse candidates from applying in the future, and in fact, it might also damage your company’s reputation with its customers.
Cultural dress is another component that is often overlooked and similar to the above example. You should be careful if you plan on restricting cultural dress, such as African or East Indian attire like the Sari because the EEOC states “a dress code must not treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin.” Instead, you should try to embrace these cultural differences and accommodate for them in your dress code.
Many religions have certain attire—such as a practicing Muslim wearing a hijab—and organizations are required to make accommodations for religious practices. The EEOC states that if an employee requests an accommodation to be able to continue practicing their religion, the employer must modify the dress code.
The employee might only wear the garment during specific holidays or they might wear it year round, either way, your organization’s dress code should adjust for their clothing choices. It is also important to have language in the actual dress code that specifies religious dress is allowed so that employees feel comfortable practicing their religion, instead of fearful that they are breaking the rules.
Make sure your dress code is written in terms that doesn’t target a specific gender. According to the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality, a company’s dress code should be written in a way to “avoid gender stereotypes and enforce it consistently.”
The HRC also states, “Requiring men to wear suits and women to wear skirts or dresses, while legal, is based on gender stereotypes.” A stipulation like this might make a trans employee feel conflicted based on how they identify.
Also, since most items listed in a dress code tend to target garments that women wear, your code should be as gender neutral as possible. One way to make sure your code reads gender neutral is to let employees use their best judgement and always err on the side of caution.
These five dress code components play a critical part in promoting diversity and inclusion throughout your workplace. Remember that it’s always better to be proactive rather than reactive and to set these practices in place before a potential conflict arises.
Also, be sure that all employees are aware of the dress code and what it entails. Training your employees on the benefits of a diverse workplace can help reinforce these policies and ensure a happy workplace for all.
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