WHNT News 19 tackles touchy subject of appearance in the workplace

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - We have many rights in this country. For example, we have the right to free speech and to bear arms. Do you have the right to choose how you look at your job? A lot of people feel the answer to that question is hands down ‘yes.’ Not so fast! In many professions, mine included as a broadcast journalist, that’s not always an option. My hair, clothes, jewelry, makeup are all subject to management’s approval. WHNT NEWS 19 delves into this debate.

Hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, clothes and facial hair are all ways to express your individuality. However, where you express it has limitations, especially in the working world.

“If you’re working for someone, you don’t have complete freedom to whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it,” explains Vicki Morris.

Morris works for Rocket City HR, a Madison based company providing human resources services to businesses. She’s known of companies to be very strict when it comes to appearance guidelines for employees.

“How high of a high heel do you want the ladies to wear? Do you want the ladies to wear hose when they’re wearing skirts?” poses Morris, as she describes certain scenarios. “I have seen instances where gentlemen need to be clean shaven or if you do have a mustache it needs to be moderate. There are instances of how many earrings you can have, rings you can wear, and the amount of jewelry and makeup.”

Morris says it all depends of the corporate culture you’re in.

“Yes, you should be an individual and express your own personality, but you have to remember it’s not about you, it’s about the company,” says Morris.

Is it all about the company? This viral video sparked a huge debate over a TV news intern’s curly hairstyle for an on-air school project. She was told to straighten it because it would be distracting. Once again, it brought the conversation about appearance in the workplace to the forefront.

Are some companies too controlling? Specifically, when it comes to my hair, it’s naturally curly. I straighten it for work because I prefer it that way and so does my boss. Is it right to impose such specific expectations on employees? What’s fair and what’s crossing the legal line? WHNT NEWS 19 posed those questions to a veteran labor and employment attorney.

“It’s a balancing test,” says John Wilmer, of the Wilmer & Lee law firm in Huntsville. Wilmer says for the most part, it’s left to the judgment of the employer, unless there are discriminatory results.

“It can’t favor or unduly burden one sex or one race or one religion,” explains Wilmer.

Admittedly, sometimes that’s hard for people to grasp.

“Some people feel that they have an absolute right to enforce their rights the way they want it to be rather than look at the rights of the employer involved,” says Wilmer.

That’s the thing about rights - you aren't the only one with them and the right to exercise them. Again, Wilmer says it’s about balance.

“The employer can’t impose any restrictions that the employer wants to put on employees, but the employee can’t pick and choose what they want to wear if it violates a policy,” says Wilmer.

We know the opinions are strong about this topic and vary greatly. Not everyone agrees. You can join in the debate by taking our online survey below or chat about it on Clarissa’s Facebook page.