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HR Handled Right

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dress code policy

Contrary to popular belief, dress code lawsuits based on sex discrimination generally fail. This is because courts, recognizing that employees represent their company’s public image, have a lot of leeway in what they can require their employees to wear. And, yes, this is true even when they have different requirements for men and women.

A couple of recent lawsuits, however, have muddied the waters somewhat. Debrahlee Lorenzana, for instance, made the headlines in 2010 when she accused Citigroup of firing her because her curvaceous figure was “too distracting” for her male colleagues. Ms. Lorenzana alleged that her male employers essentially gave her a list of forbidden clothes – including pencil skirts, turtle necks, and spiked heels – that were allowed for other female employees. When she pointed this out, she was told these employees didn’t have the same delectable figure that she did. When she refused to revamp her wardrobe, she was fired.

Too Hot to Sell Sexy Lingerie?

Then came Lauren Odes, who, in May of this year, alleged that she was asked to tape down her breasts, wear baggy t-shirts, and/or wear a bathrobe to keep her male store owners from unnecessarily stimulating the male lingerie store owners. This case has an interesting twist because, not only is gender an issue here, but the religion of the store owners allegedly played a part in their requests – and ultimate termination of Ms. Odes.

The Quagmire of “Suggestive” Clothes

So what is the real issue here? With regard to Citigroup, there could be some legitimate question as to whether they had a discriminatory dress code if they had rules for “sexy” attire for women but not for men; this does not appear to be the case. Similarly, if either Ms. Odes or Ms. Lorenzana reported unwanted sexual conduct directed towards them by male coworkers (again, which does not appear to be the case), then either could have potential grounds for sexual harassment.

One reason both of these situations escalated was the way employers communicated to their employees about their dress code policy and their request for a wardrobe update. In my dress code training, I find that managers often use words like “provocative” or “suggestive” when talking to an under-dressed employee.

Provoking whom? Suggesting what? These words are not only offensive to the person, they can also be misinterpreted as an expression of sexual interest. Most of us are highly sensitive to any comments about our physical appearance; before your reissue your dress code as a summer reminder, make sure your managers know what to say when it’s violated.