Employees Can Be Told What to Wear in Georgia

Boss can dictate no-skirt policy for safety reasons

What you wear at work may seem like your business, and not your boss’s, but unless you’re working from home, your employer has legitimate reasons to care about your appearance. As a general rule, an employer is entitled to state requirements and restrictions regarding employee dress, such as a specific uniform or level of professional attire. Certainly, an employer is entitled to expect standards of hygiene, appropriateness and professionalism while staff is on the clock representing their company. But there are limits to what an employer may dictate, including where seemingly even-handed rules cross discriminatory lines.

Accommodating Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

Take, for example, dress requirements that violate the dictates of an employee’s religion, such as prohibiting head coverings. Though even-handed on its face, where this kind of requirement isn’t based in a legitimate business reason, it’s likely be found a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue in 2015, deciding that defendant Abercrombie and Fitch’s failure to hire a Muslim woman because her hijab clashed with their “classic East Coast collegiate style” was motivated by a desire to avoid accommodating her religious practice, in violation of Title VII.

That said, the law on what kinds of religious garb must be accommodated, and in what circumstances, is still being hashed out. Marcus Keegan, an employment attorney in Atlanta, represented a client who had been hired by Delta Airlines as a ramp agent, loading baggage onto planes. He states that she was capable of performing the required duties, but her religion prohibited her from wearing pants.

“She’d worked other jobs where she was able to wear a long skirt, and that was fine. During the training, when they told her she would have to wear pants, she complained,” Keegan says.

Safety Concerns May Outweigh Religion

Keegan’s client prevailed at the magistrate level, but the district court judge overturned the decision, finding that Delta had a legitimate business interest in its concern that the plaintiff’s skirt presented a safety issue.

“One of the things that was interesting about the case,” Keegan adds, “is that they actually had her come in and do a mock version of the job. In the deposition, when I asked if she was able to do the job, they said, ‘yes.’ But the guy said she could have hurt herself, and that the skirt rode up. Their argument was restricted movement, like if she had to climb up on something. Our argument was: She had never done the job, so she didn’t know precisely what it entailed. She could have worn a different skirt, or she could have worn leggings underneath.”

In the end, Keegan’s client decided not to appeal the matter further, in large part because she needed to move on with her life. “By then, it had been four years, and the client had found another job and was ready to be done,” he says.

In addition, the climate in the 11th Circuit has typically been less favorable toward employee rights than other jurisdictions, meaning that lawyers like Keegan need to pick their battles carefully, to prevent making bad precedent.

Although Georgia may afford fewer employee protections than some other states, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue a Title VII complaint if you think you’ve been discriminated against. Talk to an experienced employment attorney who represents employees.

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