HR Blog

Dress Codes

05/01/2017 | Dee Yingst

Is it possible to craft a dress code without becoming the fashion police? Absolutely! 

It seems to me there's an inverse relationship between the increase in temperature and the decrease in fabric we tend to see in the workplace: sleeves and hemlines become shorter, we see fewer jackets, and in some workplaces we even start to see toes.

So as those temps and hemlines start to go up, it's a great time to talk about dress codes! 

I once had a supervisor that would sum up the summer dress code by saying if you would be comfortable walking on the beach in what you're wearing, then it's not appropriate for the office.  Ideally, your policy should have a little more substance to it than that. Here are some things to keep in mind. 

Safety first.

Safety must be the first requirement of any dress code. For instance, in an industry where patients are frequently pushed in wheelchairs, one of the workers was very upset that the dress code stated she could not wear thong-styled sandals.  That is, until she was asked what would happen if she was wearing those sandals and an occupied wheelchair rolled over her foot.  Ouch. Given the choice of safety or style, always choose safety. 

Be consistent. 

You can have a different dress code for different functional areas of an organization.  If for instance your organization is a machine shop, you may require the employees on the shop floor to wear steel-toed shoes. Do employees in the front office need to wear them – probably not.  You may have a different standard of dress for sales people or those who interact with the public than you do for the folks who are strictly internal. That's ok. Just be sure you're being consistent. 

Make it reasonable and enforceable. 

Are you seriously planning to measure the number of inches from knees to hemlines?  Are you going to check the tags to see if the employee is wearing rayon or a polyester blend? Check their teeth to ensure they brushed and flossed that morning? (Sadly I've actually seen these things in dress codes). If you don't want really short skirts, it's ok to say "skirts no shorter than just above the knee" without going into actual measurements. 

Give examples. 

At a minimum, an employer should list attire that is not permitted; it's better to also give examples of what is considered acceptable. Make sure your policy tells employees that appropriateness of attire is at the company's discretion – not theirs. Tell them if they are not appropriately dressed and get sent home to change they will not be compensated for that time. Determine your goal then go from there. For instance if you don't want (ahem) excessive displays of body parts you could say:  Clothing must be worn so as to not expose the abdomen, chest or buttock area. Or, if you're ok with t-shirts but you're concerned about decals or messages you could say: Clothing must be free of sexually related references, foul language, and/or suggestions or promotion of illegal drugs. If you're ok with jeans but concerned about what sort of shape they're in you could say Jeans are permitted provided they are in good repair, no cut-offs or holes (even if intentional due to fashion). 

There are lots of other things to think about and address – you might want to tell employees that undergarments are not to be visible, that items like tank tops, halter tops, shorts, etc are not acceptable. If you're ok with polo shirts but not t-shirts you could include a rule that shirts have to have collars and so forth. 

Don't allow your dress code to be used as a weapon of discrimination. 

In addition to communicating the policy to employees, it is imperative that you train supervisors on its proper application. There may be times when exceptions have to be made for things like religious garments (for example headwear such as a yarmulke, or a headscarf such as a hijab or chunni). Wearing these garments as part of religious observance is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; using a dress code as a defense against discrimination will put you at the wrong end of a call from the fine folks at the EEOC1. 

Banish the fashion police.

The overall thing to remember is that you want to keep your dress code simple – what you don't want to do is to draft something so onerous and detailed (like stating the number of inches a skirt can be above the knee) that you become an honorary deputy with the fashion police. No one has that kind of time. 

1 – The EEOC can give you more information about Title VII and religious garb and grooming, including reasonable accommodation; find it here.