Sounding Board: Getting a dressing down

As the first provisions of health care reforms begin to take effect, some industry executives express concerns about higher costs and hidden requirements.

By Len Lewis

The woman’s face was getting redder and redder as she admonished the store manager for several minutes, poking the air in front of his chest and face with an accusatory index finger. It was one of those whispered tirades, the kind you get the gist of but really can’t hear. But one word came across loud and clear: Towelhead.

The object of this customer’s ire was a teenage cashier who was wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf. Other than that, she was indistinguishable from any typical American teenager wearing too much makeup, torn jeans (the expensive kind), Uggs, a wisp of pink hair peeking out from under the scarf and an annoying habit of texting between rings.

It didn’t make any difference to this customer that scarves have been favored by everyone from the Virgin Mary to Lady Gaga. This was an offense to her rights as a customer and an assault on the American culture. I suspect her reaction would have been the same if she came across an employee was wearing a yarmulke, speaking Spanish, using street slang or sporting a nose ring.

This whole subject came to a head recently when Juan Williams, a liberal commentator for National Public Radio and a Fox News contributor, made a remark about getting nervous seeing people in “Muslim garb” at airports.

It was a benign, thinking-out-loud comment from someone who is usually a voice of reason and was certainly not meant to incite. But the ensuing firestorm of political correctness resulted in Williams’ abrupt dismissal from NPR, the left wing liberal media outlet which, like its counterparts on the right, is subject to kneejerk reactions. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I lean a little left myself—just not as far.

Frankly, I’m more offended by males over the age of 10 wearing their baseball caps backwards. But that just makes me a snob—not a bigot.

When it comes to retail, this is not so much a discussion about freedom of religion, choice or expression as it is a discourse on relationships between retailers, customers and employees. How far do you go to please customers and how much abuse do you allow you or your employees to take?

Do you waste time enforcing rules on what they wear instead of how they perform? Not to mention the fact that in a time of ultra political correctness, something like a simple dress code can be a lightening rod for litigation.

This might seem like an insignificant issue to those of you trying to navigate the retail maelstrom. But we’re at a point where the workforce is more diverse than it’s ever been in terms of age, gender, race and religion. The strict dress code that some in retailing feel is de rigueur, is a product of the 1950s and way past its sell-by date.
Consistency, and in some cases unreasonable conformity, is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Of course, in people-facing jobs, there are times when standards for acceptable appearance are necessary. A cashier in a hijab is not one of them, unless she was working in a factory where safety was an issue.

The best thing to do is approach the idea of dress or appearance codes pre-emptively. If  you’re going to have one make sure it’s a carefully drafted policy, consistent and reasonable for everyone. Base it on business issues, not personal preference or prejudices, and communicate it properly. I’m loath to suggest it but consult a lawyer versed in HR issues if you’re unsure.

Some issues can be a bit tricky to navigate. Religious discrimination is covered under federal and state laws. One of the few recourses left to employers is to prove that a certain style of dress might be a safety hazard. When it comes to sex discrimination the courts and the EEOC have decided that employers can have dress codes as long as it doesn’t present an undue hardship for one group over another.

The good news, at least for some, is that employees do not have the right under any circumstances to show off tattoos and piercings in the workplace. Seems it’s a grooming and social issue and does not constitute religious or racial expression. Now, if we could only get them away from their phones. As a business issue, the hijab pales by comparison.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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