It’s time to reassess dress codes … before the ACLU darkens your door too

Grand Palace dress code

Sodacan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An international airline is learning this lesson the hard way.

Last Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it had sent this letter to a northwest-based airline on behalf of a non-binary employee demanding that it “stop enforcing a uniform policy that requires flight attendants to conform to a rigid set of ‘male’ and ‘female’ dress and grooming standards.”

The employee felt “forced into one of two standards,” male or female, resulting in “a binary uniform that excludes [the employee] and leads to [the employee] being misgendered at work.” And the ACLU alleges that the airline’s uniform policy violates both state and federal law:

The uniform policy comprehensively regulates every aspect of a flight attendant’s appearance as part of either the “male” or “female” uniform, including which pants and cardigans employees may wear, whether employees must wear their hair up or down, how many earrings employees are allowed to wear, whether employees may wear makeup or just concealer, and whether employees may roll up their sleeves. 

The airline has responded to the ACLU letter by noting that it already allows flight attendants to select the uniform kit of their choice, regardless of gender identity. It also plans to “implement new gender-neutral hair policies that will allow all flight attendants to wear their hair down when not handling food, regardless of gender.”

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Can’t an airline insist on a particular uniform for its flight attendants?”

As the Human Rights Campaign notes, “generally speaking, employers have a right to establish employee dress and grooming guidelines during work hours if they are reasonable and serve a legitimate business purpose.” The HRC gives a few examples, including maintaining a certain image with customers and competitors. Safety and visibility (think: law enforcement) would be other business reasons.

The ACLU also acknowledges that companies are “free to adopt dress and grooming standards that present a consistent image for customers in terms of colors and style as long as the standards are not based on [protected class] characteristics.”

However, the ACLU adds that companies “may not use employees’ gender-related ‘appearance, behavior, or expression’ as part of its corporate branding. It is no defense to discrimination for an employer to argue that the discrimination is part of the company’s brand.”

Now, I’ll admit it. I’m not very well-versed in gender-neutral attire. But let’s say I have good intentions and want to focus on equity and inclusiveness. Also, I’m not keen on dress code discrimination claims. How should I revise a dress code? Should I even have one?

I read up on gender-neutral dress and grooming standards for the workplace, and here is what I found at

Gender-neutral, or gender-free clothing, is attire that avoids what is traditionally considered hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine elements. Gender-neutral clothing is appropriate for any person to wear, regardless of the gender with which you may identify. Slacks or pants are one example of gender-neutral clothing. They can be dressed up or down depending on the office environment and you can pair slacks with a wide variety of tops, shoes and accessories for a more individualized look.

The article includes several gender-neutral options for casual, business casual, and business professional attire. So check it out.

Or you can just co-opt GM’s dress code — “Dress appropriately” — and save yourself a few handbook pages.

So what does your company do about uniforms and dress codes? Please email me. I’d love to hear from you.

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