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SOME EMPLOYEES REBEL AGAINST STRICT DRESS CODES

SOME EMPLOYEES REBEL AGAINST STRICT DRESS CODES

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In May, Teresa Fischette, a sales agent for Continental Airlines at Boston's Logan Airport, was fired. The offense: She refused to wear makeup.

On May 1, the airline had instituted new rules on employee appearance, requiring female ticket agents to wear makeup - something Fischette, 38, had never done. ``It wasn't a political statement,' Fischette said in a recent telephone interview about her refusal to comply with the new rules. ``I have natural coloring. I've never had a need to wear makeup.'In a series of letters and meetings, she told managers that they were ``mixing up attractiveness with a professional look.' Finally, Fischette went public. And it was Continental that ended up blushing.

Newspaper articles ran nationwide; Fischette appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show; and Jay Leno performed a lengthy skit lampooning the airline's policy on ``The Tonight Show.'

The upshot was that Continental turned its rules into optional guidelines. Fischette was re-instated and flown to Houston to receive a personal apology from Continental Chairman Hollis Harris.

The Continental incident highlights an increasing attention to corporate dress codes in recent years, particularly for women.

``We're getting more calls these days from women who are being told, 'You just don't look the right way,' ' said Barbara Otto, spokeswoman for 9 to 5, a Cleveland-based group representing clerical and secretarial workers. ``A lot of women are definitely qualified, but they're being discriminated against because of their appearance.'

But although dress codes may rankle some workers, bosses have substantial freedom to impose the restrictions under federal law. Employees have little recourse as long as such policies don't discriminate, says New York employment lawyer Wayne Outten. That means employers must apply dress codes uniformly to all employees, regardless of sex or race, and make reasonable accommodation to an employee's religious or ethnic identification, Outten says.

The focus on appearance has not been restricted to female employees. Otto said she got a call recently from a slender man whose female boss insisted he work out with her to build up his body. She called him a ``wimp' when he couldn't lift weights that she could, Otto said. He left the job.

Other recent examples:

In a recent office memo, prosecutors working for U.S. Attorney Andrew Maloney of Brooklyn were instructed to drop their casual attire and ``wear dress appropriate for a law office.' The memo, signed by ``The Supervisors,' acknowledged the office had a reputation for relaxed informality, but ``at times we present a fair imitation of a dude ranch or Club Med resort.'

At a recent annual meeting of Safeco Corp., a retired company employee made a plea to allow male employees to wear colored shirts. But the white-shirt rule was ``part of our thing,' responded Bruce Maines, chairman of the Seattle-based insurance company. The rule was not changed.

Earlier this year, dozens of police officers at the 44th and 50th Precincts in the Bronx were ordered to remove American flag patches they had stitched on their uniforms in support of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. While officers could wear American flag pins, patches were a violation of the department's code, city police commissioner Lee Brown said.

``Dressing for success' has long been a concern for many employers. But some observers say that the preoccupation with image and appearance was revived during the 1980s.

``Society has become more plastic in the Reagan-Bush era,' 9 to 5's Otto says. ``Looking the part - the 'right way' - has become more important.'

Occasionally, employees succeed in changing dress codes. At Avis Inc., the Garden City, N.Y.-based car rental company, workers at the company's Hawaii offices recently proposed uniforms ``more in keeping with the ambience of the islands,' said Avis spokesman Ray Noble.

``They wanted a more tropical, floral pattern - they called it 'aloha wear,' ' Noble said. They got it.

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