The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has attracted thousands of supporters in recent months. As sports returns to TV, we’re seeing players wearing shirts promoting this social justice cause, some even replacing player names with the names of victims of racial violence. But what happens when employees wear BLM shirts, masks, or other apparel to the workplace?
In recent weeks, Starbucks came under fire after forbidding employees from wearing Black Lives Matter clothing and accessories. After the public pushed back, Starbucks reversed the policy and capitalized on the publicity by creating and distributing Black Lives Matter t-shirts expressing solidarity with the movement. In contrast, Whole Foods, which also banned BLM apparel, is standing firm, citing its dress code forbidding apparel with visible slogans or messaging. The company now faces a lawsuit from employees.
As the economy continues to reopen, more employers will have to address the issue, so now is the time to determine the best response for your company. In most cases, the matter is as simple as clarifying the dress code. If employers have a policy against workers wearing non-company slogans, they need to enforce the guidelines consistently, across the board. In the case of Whole Foods, the company has allowed apparel with political slogans, support for LGBTQ issues, sports team logo shirts and caps, and other non-company related messages. Selective enforcement may prove to be an embarrassing and possibly expensive lapse for the employer.
An employer that allows BLM apparel should decide in advance how to handle other messaging, including slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” that are deliberately divisive. Be prepared to explain that allowing support for BLM is due to the seriousness of the issue right now and is a one-time exception to the dress code.
Keep in mind, however, that if employees are wearing Black Lives Matter apparel to protest their company’s discriminatory practices and are terminated or harassed, they may be protected by law and have basis for a claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the National Labor Relations Act.
Black Lives Matter is an emotionally charged issue at a time when tension is high for the entire country. Consulting an employment law attorney can help you develop a thoughtful approach that is legally sound. As always, we are happy to help.