Acme's dress code isn't pretty

May 17, 2006
A long-time female Acme employee doesn't feel the new dress code policy is fair to women, and after she's fired for non-compliance, she sues. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

A long-term employee with Acme, Barb Aroza has held a variety of progressively more responsible front office jobs, most of which focused on close interaction with customers, suppliers and other parts of the company’s supply chain. Barb is an intense worker, one who practically vibrates with energy as she tries to make every day her personal best. How she manages to maintain this blistering pace for the quarter century she’s been with Acme no one can say. Her explanation is that she craves the psychological high she gets when someone sends unsolicited praise for the outstanding work she did on their behalf. Regular infusions of such praise over the years, especially from customer, provide the positive reinforcement she needs to stay in top form.

When she first came to Acme, Barb wore makeup and other accoutrements typical of her gender because that’s what was needed to land a job and keep it in the uptight 1970s. Later, after the Acme power structure had accepted her competence as given, she gradually dispensed with the rigmarole, including the makeup, in favor of attire more consistent with her personal lifestyle preferences. This freedom allowed her to focus on doing the job extraordinarily well, instead of being distracted constantly by worries about whether she looks attractive, an issue that was of no importance to her. Acme management never objected to Barb’s gradual morphosis and she simply continued on her merry way, doing her thing day after day and, by the way, earning herself a string of excellent performance reviews to boot.
Earlier this year, Acme’s executive committee for continuous improvement rolled out the first in a series of initiatives designed to reinvent the company and attract greater market share. The initial proclamation was a revised dress and grooming standard for office employees at each Acme manufacturing plant. The new rules, however, didn’t apply to employees working on the loading docks or the production lines down on the plant floor.

The thinking behind this spiffifying edict was that dressing well improves one’s self-esteem and builds one’s feelings of confidence. Behind that objective was a desire to help employees avoid doing anything that could possibly jeopardize the quarter’s financial numbers and upset the anticipated executive bonus payout.

The new grooming standards for females include the requirement to wear makeup, including mascara, lipstick, blush and foundation. Hair must be curled or styled and not held off the neck with a comb or clip. The rules also state that women are to wear nylons every day and that only certain colors of nail polish are acceptable.

That’s not to say that males are exempt from a parallel set of dictates. Men can’t wear hair that touches or extends below the top of the shirt collar. And shirts must have collars. Ponytails and facial hair are specifically prohibited. Men must keep their fingernails clean and trimmed with no evidence of colored nail polish. Men are expressly prohibited from wearing makeup of any kind.

The long-standing but unwritten tradition of casual Fridays was formally rescinded. Except for earrings on female employees, any visible body piercing is totally taboo. In addition, the dress standards explicitly prohibit running shoes, denim, miniskirts, halter tops, tank tops, T-shirts, sweatshirts and any article of clothing imprinted with clever sayings, team logos, designer’s names, or any other image, graphic or wording.

Acme management desires, after all, 100% compliance. Mercifully, the committee granted office employees a one-month grace period intended to give the affected crew an opportunity either to purchase whatever supplies or clothing they need and schedule a visit to a barber or hair salon, or apply for a job on the dock or in the plant where the code didn’t apply.

The arrival of the company-wide e-mail announcing the dress code didn’t sit well with Barb. As soon as she finished reading it, she stomped off to see Elmer Sklew, her department head.

“This dress code,” Barb grumbled, “is unfair to women. Compliance imposes an unfair burden on us.”

“What do you mean?” Elmer asked, somewhat shocked by the sudden intrusion.

“Do you have any idea how much extra time it takes a woman to meet these rules each morning?” she asked. “You men simply shower, get dressed and off you go. And, if there are children in the family, it’s the woman who generally is saddled with being the primary morning caregiver.”

“Barb, I don’t write the rules here,” replied Elmer. “What do you expect me to do?”

“It’s not only time,” Barbed continued her fuming. “Do you have any idea what cosmetics cost? I know you’ve seen the studies showing that women earn only 70% of what men earn for doing exactly the same job. Gosh darn it, Elmer, female workers here should at least get an across-the-board raise just on general principles.”

“Calm down, Barb,” Elmer pleaded. “This is bigger than both of us. I think you’re going to have to deal with it.”

“And the kicker,” Barb added indignantly, “is that these rules want me to conform to a feminine stereotype that doesn’t fit me at all. In fact, I think this whole thing stinks.”

“As I said, Barb,” replied Elmer, now quite dismissive in his attitude, “deal with it as best you can. You’ve made your point, I understand your position, but I can’t help you on this one. But, I advise you to pick your battles carefully. Meanwhile, you still have a month either to comply with the dress standards or start applying for a different job down on the plant floor.”

During the grace period, Barb adamantly refused to comply with the policy on the grounds that it degrades her dignity by forcing her to conform to an offensive, regressive, exploitive sexual stereotype that has absolutely nothing to do with the job she was hired to perform. She argued that the sexual stereotype Acme is trying to promote as its ideal is outmoded and inconsistent with ongoing sociological trends in the manufacturing arena in this country.

When the deadline arrived, Barb had neither applied for a plant job nor adopted the dress and grooming standards. The following morning, Elmer called Barb into his office to deliver the coup de gras that cast Barb down into the ranks of the unemployed. It was nothing personal, he explained, just business. This was exactly Barb’s feelings when she filed a sexual discrimination suit a few weeks later.

How could this situation have been avoided? Do grooming standards make sense today? Are such standards superfluous for employees who don’t interact with outsiders? Should Acme have tried to impose these particular standards? Would things have gone differently if Acme tried to equalize the burden on men and women? Is there a better way to introduce initiatives with such far-reaching implications for so many workers? Does Acme have appropriate justification for implementing a dress code? Is it worth losing a productive employee over a dress code? Do show dress codes really improve employee performance?

An academician says:

Dress codes are becoming more common these days. Even the NBA instituted an off-the-court dress code (they always had an on-the-court code) because some of the pro basketball players were (allegedly) dressing like “thugs.”

My take on this is that we moved from formal to more causal work attire about 15 or so years ago, and the first wave of so-called casual was just this side of formal and looked quite professional. However, over the years causal became much more difficult to control, and involved tattoos, nose rings, lip rings and other body piercings. Jeans became more torn and tattered (for which some people pay $150 or more), and shirts became skimpier and were sometimes accompanied by (offensive) words of wisdom emblazoned on the front or back.

So, now the pendulum is swinging back to more formal dress codes.

There’s a common myth floating around that dress codes are illegal because they violate one’s personal freedom, which is claimed to be protected by the U.S. constitution. Not true – companies, even the NBA, can institute dress codes as long as they are reasonable. And they really don’t need appropriate justification in the sense that they have to conform to the dictates of some outside authority or inside opinion.

But Acme’s code seems a bit extreme. For example, I deal with literally hundreds of professional women in our MBA program, many employed in the top U.S. companies, and I see only a few wearing lipstick, blush or mascara and many of Acme’s other requirements. As an aside, I don’t see nose and lip rings, or tattoos that say “Born to Raise Hell.”

My advice on dress codes is to move slowly. Get input from customers, employees, and whoever might be affected. And have some overall purpose or reason for instituting a code, which would then guide your decision–making. Institute the code slowly, giving people time to adjust. Make sure the key people in the company are exemplary models. And make sure everyone understands that this is company policy, period, with no exceptions.
Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

An attorney says:

I’m siding with Barb on this one. Telling a woman she has to wear makeup, let alone what kind of makeup, and what color her nail polish needs to be crosses the line. Is this sex discrimination? Probably.

When it comes to dress and grooming standards, parallels don’t always exist between the sexes. There’s no male equivalent of “thou shall wear mascara, lipstick, blush and foundation.” However, the courts have routinely upheld dress and grooming standards for both sexes that comport with business custom, even though they may not be absolutely the same. An employer may require both sexes to avoid the extremes of dress that aren’t acceptable in a business setting -- athletic shoes, earrings on men, halter tops on women, for example. But there’s no business custom that requires women to wear makeup. Some women look perfectly fine without it, and many might look much better with less of the stuff.
Many employers legitimately require employees who deal with customers and suppliers to adhere to dress standards that exclude jeans, T-shirts, and slogan-bearing clothing, and to be clean and groomed in a professional fashion. Acme’s dress code seems appropriate for front office employees like Barb. But telling a woman she must wear makeup is like telling a man what kind of razor to shave with. Acme lost a good employee and bought itself a lawsuit over an act of frivolity.
Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

Is Acme crazy? Even military dress codes aren't this strict!

A dress code is appropriate for a particular job function such as steel-toed shoes for construction workers, or uniforms for specific service functions such as nursing, judges’ robes or mechanics' overalls. Similarly, branded clothing such as ball caps or golf shirts for marketing purposes or for corporate identity is also understandable.

It's also appropriate for organizations to have dress codes that prohibit certain types of clothing in the office, such as tank tops, flip-flops, exposed tummies or blue jeans. It's even understandable that certain makeup or hair styles be required for those working in the cosmetics or beauty industries.

It is not understandable, however, for Acme to impose such strict requirements when they're not relevant to job function or corporate branding, or when they're beyond normal work place standards. Aside from that which OSHA dictates to ensure safety, dress codes aren't meant to improve performance; they're meant to standardize, to identify or brand, to indicate one's profession. Dictating color of nail polish and requiring mascara and lipstick are way over the top. Certain acne medications have the appearance of makeup and men use them. Under Acme's new policy, even this would be prohibited. I'm all for being explicit about what is meant by acceptable casual attire, but what Acme has done here isn’t only superfluous, it's excessive. They've gone beyond grooming standards, and are attempting to define and dictate prettiness.

The situation could have been avoided in a number of ways. The dress code could have been benchmarked against other like organizations, and HR could have checked into its legality. As with any new or changed policy, brief all-staff meetings are better communication vehicles than e-mail. Next, since this is most assuredly a radical change from Acme's historical dress code, a review of the proposed new policy by the entire executive team would have been appropriate. I can't imagine that had this been done, the new code would have passed muster. A cursory overview by the most inexperienced manager or even by the most patrician business executive would have revealed the new code to be excessive in the extreme.
Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
[email protected]

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