Can Workplace Uniform Policies Go Too Far?

Man in uniform standing at counter at checking point and watching at monitor with x-ray of luggage.

A group of workers at Helsinki Airport (Finland) recently walked off the job in support of a colleague who had been fired for violating uniform policy. The violation would seem minor by American standards, but it was considered serious by the airport’s management. So the question is, do the airport’s policies go too far?

Here in the U.S., federal law allows employers to require uniforms at their own discretion. Moreover, the only regulations pertaining to work uniforms have to do with safety. There is nothing in federal or state law that prevents an employer from mandating certain styles, colors, fabrics, etc.

The Helsinki Airport Case

It is difficult to discuss the appropriateness of workplace uniform requirements without talking about specific cases. Let’s start with the case of the Helsinki Airport employee. The employee in question was part of the security team. He was warned by supervisors after he came to work with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon pinned to his uniform. He refused to remove the ribbon and was subsequently terminated.

The case seems pretty straightforward until you discover that other airport employees wore pink ribbons during the month of October with no issues. It raises an obvious question of fairness. On the one hand, it’s understandable that airport security would not want anything attached to a uniform that would make security staff look unprofessional. On the other hand, banning pink ribbons for security personnel while allowing them for other airport workers doesn’t seem right either.

Was termination too harsh? Should the employee have removed the ribbon after being warned? These are questions only Helsinki Airport and its workers can answer. But there are plenty of legitimate concerns raised by this case.

Why Uniform Policies Exist

Looking at the Helsinki case brings up the question of why uniform policies exist. According to Alsco, a nationwide workwear uniform supplier, there is no single reason for mandating uniforms. Companies do what they do for a whole host of reasons.

In the case of the Helsinki Airport security team, uniforms are required in order to present the proper image. Security uniforms are also functional as well. Finally, the uniforms undoubtedly protect security workers from certain things that could potentially cause them harm.

There are times when uniforms are less about function or protection and more about marketing. Take the Hooters restaurant chain, for example. Whether or not you agree with their uniform choices, it is clear that ownership has established a uniform policy with a focus on projecting a certain image.

Yet another reason for adopting uniform policy is to make for easy identification of workers. Your local utility is a great example. Workers are easily identified by uniforms that include the company logo and visible ID cards. The uniforms offer extra protection in a dangerous work environment.

Why Violations Are a Concern

One last thing to consider in this discussion is why uniform violations are such a concern. Again, it depends on the employer and the purpose for requiring a uniform. At the top of the list is safety. If uniforms are required for safety, policy violations could endanger workers. An employer would be foolish to allow such violations for any reason.

Sometimes violations are a matter of improper messaging. Other times a violation may result in a less-than-professional appearance. There are as many uniform violations as there are reasons for committing them.

Can uniform policies go too far? Yes, they can. Unfortunately, how far constitutes too far is a matter for employers to decide. At least that’s the way it is in this country.