In an effort to satisfy customers and maintain a desired company image, many employers have dress and grooming policies. As a general rule, employers are legally allowed to establish reasonable dress and grooming requirements that serve legitimate business interests. However, two recent cases remind employers that there are limits on what grooming standards employers can impose on employees.
In Xodus v. Wackenhut Corp., 106 FEP Cases 278 (N.D. Ill 2009), the court held that the plaintiff had stated a colorable case of religious discrimination with his claim that the company discriminated against him when it denied him a security guard position because he would not cut his dreadlocks to comply with the company’s grooming policy. Plaintiff was a Rastafarian/Hebrew Israelite. Both parties agreed that the plaintiff did not specifically identify his religion during the interview, only that he refused to cut his hair because of his "beliefs." The court explained that a claimant is not required to identify a particular religion in order to prove religious discrimination. The Southern District of New York also reached a similar conclusion in allowing a plaintiff’s race discrimination claim to go forward in Burchette v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, 106 FEP Cases 266 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). In Burchette, the plaintiff, an African-American female, alleged that she was ordered to remove blonde highlights in her hair and was told she could only have a dark or "natural" hair color — while Caucasian employees were allowed to have a variety of hair colors and styles.
In order to avoid discrimination claims of various kinds, prudent employers will review each case on its facts and ensure that their supervisors are correctly applying the policy and will make exceptions in appropriate cases. Furthermore, in the event a dress or grooming policy differentiates between male and female employees, employers need to make sure that the policy does not disproportionately impact one group more than the other.