Make Sure Grooming Standards Consider Job Needs, Protected Practice

Our receptionist came in after the holiday weekend with “crazy hair.” She dyed it bright pink—it isn’t remotely a natural color. Can we ask her to change the color to a more natural hue or tone down the color?

 

While changing hair color to a “crazy” color is increasingly popular, it isn’t always a protected practice in the workplace. Employers are still free to mandate that employees maintain a business-like appearance.

 

Job Expectations

 

Nevertheless, a policy banning an unnatural hair color should take into consideration the job the employee is performing. If you have an employee working in a warehouse with no contact with the public, it might be acceptable for him/her to change his/her hair to a “crazy” color.

 

In the instant situation, however, this employee is greeting the public and is the face of the company—the first person guests encounter, so a more business-like appearance is a realistic requirement of the job.

 

Religious Protections

 

Additionally, an employer must not take action if the change in hair color is related to a religious practice. Although few such practices, if any, appear to be on record, caution should be used before mandating a change.

 

Certain styles, however, are protected if tied to race or culture. For example, many people wear their hair in dreadlocks, which is culturally based. Hair length also can be protected, as with Nazirites whose religion forbids them to cut their hair.

 

Proceed with Caution

 

Further, if the employee isn’t required to change his or her hair color, an employer must be careful not to perceive the employee as a “ditz.” Impressions are everything in the workplace, but employers need to take action based on job performance, not based on crazy hair color.

 

Bottom line: Employers need to be cautious in today’s world when addressing grooming standards. “Neat and clean” is good, and leaves the employer free to address individual cases that come up as opposed to having a standard that is discriminatory on its face.

 

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