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The Significance of Dress Codes under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Learn more about modifying dress code policies as a form of reasonable accommodation

From the desk of Beth Loy, Ph.D., Principal Consultant


Dress codes may entail something simple like a requirement that employees wear a specific type of clothing because of the environment or because of the type of business. In a medical facility, for example, registered nurses might be required to wear a certain color and type of medical scrub. In a manufacturing facility, managers may have to wear shirts with their names on them and a different color hat. A transportation company may require a specific uniform or type of shoes. Dress codes may also forbid any jeans or sneakers while requiring business formal attire. Or, dress codes could forbid the wearing of hats, sunglasses, or open-toed shoes. Dress codes establish guidelines for the workplace, but they can vary among industries, regions, and even based on whether the facility is open to the public. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (2011):

Employers may require employees to wear certain articles of clothing to protect themselves, coworkers, or the public (e.g., construction workers are required to wear certain head gear to prevent injury; health care workers wear gloves to prevent transmission of disease from or to patients). Sometimes employers impose dress codes to make employees easily identifiable to customers and clients, or to promote a certain image (e.g., a movie theater requires its staff to wear a uniform; a store requires all sales associates to dress in black). A dress code also may prohibit employees from wearing certain items either as a form of protection or to promote a certain image (e.g., prohibitions on wearing jewelry or baseball caps, or requirements that workers wear business attire).

So, may an employer require that an employee with a disability follow the dress code imposed on all workers in the same job? Most agencies treat dress codes as "conduct rules," but classify them as the type of conduct rule that must be justified as "job-related and consistent with business necessity" before being enforced. So, if a person with a disability requests modification to a dress code as a reasonable accommodation, an employer must consider allowing the modification unless the employer can show that the dress code is required for the job in question.

The EEOC (2011) provides several examples of modification to a dress code as guidance.

  • An employee is undergoing radiation therapy for cancer which has caused sores to develop. The employee cannot wear her usual uniform because it is causing severe irritation as it constantly rubs against the sores. The employee seeks an exemption from the uniform requirement until the radiation treatment ends and the sores have disappeared or are less irritating. The employer agrees, and working with the employee, decides on acceptable clothes that the employee can wear as a reasonable accommodation that meet the medical needs of the employee, easily identify the individual as an employee, and enable the individual to present a professional appearance.
  • A professional office requires that its employees wear business dress at all times. Due to diabetes, Carlos has developed foot ulcers making it very painful to wear dress shoes. Also, dress shoes make the ulcers worse. Carlos asks to wear sneakers instead. The supervisor is concerned about Carlos’s appearance when meeting with clients. These meetings usually occur once a week and last about an hour or two. Carlos and his doctor agree that Carlos can probably manage to wear dress shoes for this limited time. Carlos also tells his supervisor that he will purchase black leather sneakers to wear at all other times. The supervisor permits Carlos to wear black sneakers except when he meets with clients.

If the employee cannot meet the dress code because of a disability, the employer may still require compliance if the dress code is job-related and consistent with business necessity. An employer also may require that an employee with a disability meet dress standards required by federal law. If an individual with a disability cannot comply with a dress code that meets the “business necessity” standard or is mandated by federal law, even with a reasonable accommodation, he will not be considered “qualified.”

JAN receives many questions related to dress codes. For additional guidance, contact JAN directly.