How Much Can Employers Control Workplace Attire? Goodyear in the Eye of the Storm


Political pressure and social media uproar have forced Goodyear to retract its policy prohibiting workplace attire expressing support for law enforcement personnel at work.

Most companies have defined policies that apply to workplace attire and clothing. These policies are usually in line with a company’s culture, nature of the business, and employee demographics. Debates about the permitted attire at work are generally internal and managed by HR. However, the chances of an external discussion that compels business leaders to address them are rare.

But a massive debate it is, with Goodyear’s workplace attire policyOpens a new window in the eye of the storm.

Goodyear in Trouble Over Its Workplace Attire Policy

Goodyear shares that it has a longstanding policy of asking employees to refrain from workplace expressions of support for any political candidates. But earlier this month, a widely circulated image of a training session at Goodyear caused an uproar. The image was from a training slide that showed appropriate and inappropriate displays of expression through workplace attire and other merchandise. Phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride” were deemed acceptable, while “Blue Lives Matter” and “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) were not.

What followed was widespread social media uproar, including a comment by the U.S. President himself, who discouraged his followers from engaging with Goodyear at all. Goodyear was forced to retract and amend its workplace attire policyOpens a new window , allowing employees to show their support for law enforcement and police personnel on its premises and facilities. However, support for any political campaigns, e.g., through MAGA merchandise, is still prohibited.

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How Much Can Organizations Control What Their Employees Wear?

Given instances such as these, which can also impact the company’s culture and business, what should companies do? What employees wear at work can be construed as symbolic of the company message. However, companies can’t possibly have policies that satisfy everyone, neither is it possible to have one that is open-ended enough to accommodate all employee beliefs.

Typically, an employee’s right to not be discriminated against based on what they wear does not exist. There is no or limited focus on how this can become a trigger for long-term bias.

This is an ongoing challenge for companies that have been dealing with issues of discrimination due to workplace attire – based on gender, religion, and now, political views. In July 2020, employees of Whole Foods and StarbucksOpens a new window complained about being forbidden to wear “Black Lives Matter” masks at work.

In the same month, Port Authority Opens a new window updated its dress code standards to prohibit employees from wearing clothing items “of a political or social justice nature” to include wearing face masks with similar messaging.

This stirred up employee discontent, as they believe they have the right to express their political opinions on the job. However, the law allows private employers to prohibit such attire if it is discriminatory. Workplace friction and discrimination are likely when employees wear attire that has views conflicting with those of others.

Clothing-based discrimination based is global and widespread. But interestingly, companies are also making accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs. For instance, in Singapore, Tangs, a well-known employer, has, as of August 21Opens a new window , revised its dress code policy to allow all customer-facing staff to wear religious headgear while at work to respect their choices. While the corporate and back-office employees had this option, frontline workers did not.

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Allowing Expression of Political Opinion Through Attire Can Pose a Challenge

On the one hand, allowing for a specific workplace dress code that indicates an employee’s religion, culture, gender, or even political affiliation could lead to conflict or discrimination towards them. On the other, it could also lead to the evolution of the company culture to drive a more inclusive environment.

This policy could work well, particularly for socially excluded segments such as transgender employees, as typical company policies rarely allow them to reflect their identities at work by way of dress code. In most cases, employers expect workers to dress in a wayOpens a new window that fits the gender they were assigned at birth.

On the other hand, this inclusivity could also proliferate the expression of racist or sexist opinions.

So companies are now being forced to evaluate how something as seemingly ordinary as workplace clothing can have more profound implications leading to discrimination, or positive ones like evolving company culture.

Could employees finally express their views without the fear of backlash, or will this debate lead to standardization to prevent further disputes? That is yet to be seen.