• Hospitality -- Legal Guidelines for Grooming Standards
  • March 6, 2006 | Authors: Ronald I. Tisch; Katherine E. Bierma
  • Law Firm: Littler Mendelson, A Professional Corporation - Washington Office
  • Rapid growth and a high public profile mean increasingly complex legal problems for hospitality industry companies. Customers and staff are challenging formerly accepted standards for everything from event cancellation to employee grooming, while union organizers have targeted the industry. Counsel need to understand the dangers -- and the solutions.

    Appearance and grooming policies are common in the hospitality industry. However, to avoid allegations of discrimination by employees who are disciplined for noncompliance, policies must be enforced reasonably and evenhandedly toward protected characteristics such as gender, race and religion. Key questions to ask include:

    • Do the policies have a valid business reason?

    • Is enforcement reasonable and evenhanded?

    • Do they pose an unequal burden on one group?

    In Jespersen v. Harrah's Operating Company, Inc., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave guidance on appearance standards by affirming the termination of a bartender for failing to comply with her employer's dress and grooming policy. Harrah's imposed gender-specific appearance standards (including use of makeup by females). Jespersen refused to wear makeup because she felt it forced her to be feminine, and she refused to apply for a new position. She was terminated and subsequently filed suit alleging that the makeup requirement constituted disparate treatment sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.

    The Ninth Circuit assessed the policy's impact and found that because she did not present specific evidence demonstrating the alleged cost and time disparity, Jespersen did not support her claim that the policy imposed greater cost and time burdens on women than men.

    The court held that Harrah's policy met the tests of accepted social norms (with reasonable distinctions as necessary) and evenhanded treatment. Employers whose appearance policies support these standards will not place an unequal burden on either sex and should be able to implement such policies with confidence.