Can My Employer Dictate What I Wear at Work?

Generally, yes, though there are limits to setting dress code policies

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on December 7, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Marcus G. Keegan

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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 an employee’s dress code, such as a specific uniform or level of professional attire.

An employer is entitled to expect certain standards of hygiene, appropriateness, and professionalism while staff are 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.

Religious Accommodations to Workplace Policies on Dress

Take, for example, dress requirements that violate the dictates of an employee’s religious beliefs such as prohibiting head coverings. Though even-handed on its face, where this kind of requirement isn’t based on a legitimate business reason, it’s likely to 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, Georgia, 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.

When I asked if [my client] was able to do the job [while wearing a long skirt in accordance with her religious beliefs], they said, ‘Yes.’ But the guy said she could have hurt herself… 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.

— Marcus G. Keegan

Safety Concerns May Outweigh Religious Reasons

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 to her work environment.

“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 about 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, largely 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 Court of Appeals 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.

Find an Experienced Employment Law Attorney

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

For more information about this area, including the process of reporting employment discrimination to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state employment agency, see our overviews on employment law and discrimination.

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