The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Work Advice: Can I tell my employee she has to wear a bra?

Reader: I own a small retail establishment with just three employees, all women. The youngest one has shown up to work several times wearing what I would call inappropriate attire: pajama-type loungewear that is low-cut with just a tank top underneath, a sleeveless cotton knit dress with no bra, etc. She is full-figured, and there is a lot showing under the clothing and outside it as well. The other employees and some customers, most of whom are women, have remarked on this. Am I legally able to ask that she wear a bra?

Karla: Whether for comfort, fashion-forwardness, medical reasons or to protest gender discrimination, a growing number of young women are asserting their right to push the wire-bound limits of ladies' attire — namely, ditching traditional brassieres, sometimes entirely, sometimes in favor of flimsier replacements.

And more power to them. However, as I've discussed before, employers are allowed to impose a reasonable workplace dress code consistent with their business purpose and branding. As long as they're not imposing unlawfully discriminatory rules on members of different sexes, faiths or races; denying reasonable accommodations for medical or religious needs; or basing their requirements on gender stereotypes or assumptions, they can define what's appropriate for their workplace. And if even disinterested observers find themselves distracted by what is or isn't under an employee's outfit, that outfit falls short of what most industries would consider "appropriate."

So, yes, you could address this situation with one straightforward conversation: "I need you to start wearing more work-appropriate clothing, specifically a bra." But instead of hanging your request on vague terms like "appropriate" or on one specific, politically loaded undergarment, I would urge you to think about what outcome you are trying to prevent: An overly casual, immature vibe? Excessive cleavage? Nipple exposure? Then come up with a rule to solve that problem that's specific enough to prevent misinterpretation, but universally applicable to any age, sex, body shape or personal style.

For example, the Society for Human Resource Management's dress code contains a prohibition against "clothing that fails to cover the area between the shoulders and knees." To be even more thorough, I might add that anatomy normally covered by a bathing suit, as well as underwear, should not be visible outside or through an employee's clothing. Guidelines like these preclude sheer, low-cut or backless tops, while allowing for alternatives that would serve some of the same purposes as a bra: jackets, cardigans, thick but nonrestrictive camisoles, adhesive "petals" or scarves.

And if your employees comply with the letter of your dress code, but still come up short of the image you're trying to project, they may take direction better from an outside style consultant, brought in to help them refine their look. (And to be safe, treat any mandatory style workshop, like training, as paid work time.)

PRO TIP: Title VII and the Americans With Disabilities Act apply only to businesses with 15 or more employees — but a number of state or local laws, including Washington's Human Rights Act, apply to any employer with at least one worker.