Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.
Dear Legal Mailbag:
Call me old-fashioned, but I have become increasingly disappointed in how the teachers at my school have been dressing. It is not uncommon for male teachers to wear ratty work shirts and jeans, and don’t get me started on the outfits of the female teachers. It has been a little better with the cold winter weather, but I fear what the spring weather may bring.
Rather than resenting what slobs some teachers can be, I figure that I should just take the initiative here. Checking online, I found a few really good dress codes for teachers. Using these codes as a resource, I came up with a nifty dress code to establish my expectations for teachers. The code encourages male teachers to wear ties and female teachers to wear either dresses or pant suits. I think that the teachers in my school will look really spiffy once I announce and enforce the code.
My question is how best to announce the code. Most of my teachers are cooperative, but some of the old guard resist all of my initiatives, no matter how great they are. Do you think that I should wait until next year, or do you advise that I implement the code now?
Prim and Proper
I am afraid that you have gotten ahead of yourself. I hope that you learned somewhere that you cannot change working conditions without prior negotiations with the teachers’ union. The issue here is what is and what is not a working condition.
Here, you are seeking to impose upon your staff a dress code of your own making. Moreover, at the risk of offending you, I get the impression that the dress code that you have drafted would have your teachers looking like their parents or grandparents. But no matter how regressive or flexible the dress code is, you have a fundamental problem – you can’t simply announce it and impose it. The State Board of Labor Relations has ruled that dress codes relate to working conditions and, as such, are a mandatory subject of negotiations. That means that you cannot unilaterally impose the code you drafted on your teachers. Rather, if you are serious about the dress code you developed, you will have to notify the union and find out whether it wishes to negotiate over your proposal to implement the dress code at your school. Moreover, whenever you are dealing with the union, you will want to check in with the central office to make sure that you are all on the same page.
If you are less than enthusiastic at the prospect of union negotiations, there is an alternative. The problem with the dress code as you wrote it is that it is clearly intended to change the rules for teachers, and changing the “rules” would be seen as changing working conditions. However, if you see that an individual teacher is particularly slovenly, you can intervene and tell the teacher that he/she is not meeting the expectations for professional dress that you already have at your school. As long as you can show that you are not changing the rules, but rather enforcing the rules that exist, you can make sure that teacher dress at your school meets professional standards.
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