Everything You Need to Know About Workplace Dress Codes

Businessman with TattoosFor those of us who have been in the workplace for 30 years, we remember when dress codes were simple.  Women wore dresses or skirts to work, and men wore suits.

But things have changed a lot over the decades.  Our attire, and our definitions of acceptable attire, change as our culture evolves.

Dress codes help companies maintain a professional appearance and a distraction-free work environment in a world where fashions and values change with the times.  We’ve got the info you need for creating and maintaining dress codes for your business!

Dress code policies:

Some companies choose to be rather vague with their dress code policies, stating them very simply, such as, “Dress in a safe manner, comfortable enough to work, appropriate to a business environment.”  Others tell employees to look at their supervisor and model their dress based on that person — the theory being that you should dress for the job that you want to have.  And other policies are very specific, leaving nothing to chance.

Regardless of what your company’s policy is, it must be enforced evenhandedly.  If you’re going to allow a slender young employee to wear a short skirt, you must allow an older, heavier-set employee to wear one as well.

Here are some tips on good dress code policies:

  • Put your policy in writing, preferably in your employee handbook.
  • Give it to each new employee when they start and review it with them.
  • In your policy, refer to the business reasons for its existence.  It is your right, as an employer, to set a professional environment that meets the needs of your customers, or that provides for the safety of your employees.
  • As with any policy, it must be applied across the board and without regard to age, national origin, etc.
  • Your policy also needs to take into account religious requirements.  For instance, even though you may not allow hats in the workplace, you would want to allow someone to wear a head covering that was required by their religious beliefs.

The definition of business casual dress varies by workplace:

The definition of the business casual dress code varies greatly by workplace.  There are many examples on the internet.  Since it does vary so widely, if your company defines itself as “business casual,” it is important that you clarify what this phrase means in your workplace.  For instance, does it include bare midriffs, short skirts, sandals, sockless shoes, bare legs, spandex, yoga pants, khakis, t-shirts, tennis shoes, or logo clothing?

Carefully review your dress code policy to make sure it clearly outlines your definition of business casual clothing.

Changes in our nation’s culture influence dress code policies:

Changes in our nation’s culture heavily influence dress code policies.  With the “Y Generation” entering our workforce, managers are now often faced with the dilemma of how to handle body art, such as tattoos and piercings, which are becoming more and more common.

Companies may make it a policy to not hire anyone with body art, but this restricts the applicant pool in a time when our experienced workforce is starting to retire and we are more and more dependent on the Gen Y workforce.  The solution many companies resort to is to incorporate a body art policy.  Employees can be required to cover their tattoos while at work, and to remove their piercings.

The younger workforce can also pose challenges on issues such as unnatural hair colors, like pink and purple, and extreme hairstyles.  You may not want to require everyone to have their natural hair color, but you might want to require them to have a natural hair color.

Are these standards legal?  They certainly are.  As a business you have the right to set grooming standards, as long as they are non discriminatory and accommodate any religious practices.

Handling problems with hygiene & provocative clothing:

One of the most difficult aspects of enforcing standards of grooming presents itself when we are forced to discuss hygiene or inappropriately provocative dress with an employee.  Hygiene discussions are never easy, but are in the best interests of the employee and the entire workforce.

Deal with the issue as soon as you become aware of it.  Don’t become involved in any workplace gossip about the employee.  Take the offending employee aside in private, be direct about the issue and explain that corrective action needs to take place or it affects the employee’s ability to meet workplace standards.

Provocative dress has a similar affect on the workplace, as it becomes a distraction to others and a hot topic for gossip.  Again, take the employee aside and speak directly about the company’s dress code expectations.

If these discussions can occur between a manager and employee of the same gender, it can make the discussion easier for both.  Though these discussions are difficult and we’d all like to avoid them, putting them off actually creates more of a distraction and disruption for everyone involved.

Consistency & thoughtfulness are the key to a good dress code:

Ideally, our companies’ dress codes would be in place long before any issues arose (well, ideally, issues of dress would never arise at all, but this isn’t an ideal world).

Unfortunately, many times our company dress codes are loose and ill-defined until we start to have a problem, and then we find ourselves in a position of writing codes and defining dress.  If that’s the case for your company, it may be easier on your staff if you can involve them in the process.

Many years ago, I worked for a company that repeatedly and abruptly redefined their dress code, eliminating many of the freedoms employees had enjoyed, and regulating dress even down to the acceptable number of pockets on pants.  In response, the receptionist came to work one day in a dress and asked, “Does this meet the new dress code?”  After being told it did, she proceeded to wear that same dress every day for several weeks, until she was fired for her poor attitude.

Up to that time, she’d been a great employee.  A combination of poor management style and poor communication contributed to the loss of a long time employee.

The wrap-up:

As the baby boom generation retires, and the next generation takes over, the acceptable norms for body art, hair colors and styles, and other body decorations and expressions will quite probably change.  Managers themselves will likely sport tattoos and piercings, forcing an evolution in the workplace.  Inevitably, policies change to reasonably accommodate the prevailing standards of the day.

The important thing to remember with your company’s changing dress code is that it must be based on sound business reasons, clearly defined, and consistently administered.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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