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Are Your Employees Dressed for Work or the Beach?

Are Your Employees Dressed for Work or the Beachby Jeff Nolan

There were times over the past few weeks when I might have been tempted to show up for work wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but fortunately, that temptation was quashed by our firm’s “personal appearance” policy!

Does summer weather encourage some employees to push the limits in your workplace? Do you have an “appearance” or “dress code” policy to refer to if things start getting out of hand?

In response to a 2006 poll, over one-half of the 1,000 adult Americans surveyed said that their employers didn’t have any policy regarding employees’ personal appearance. That surprising statistic (and the weather) inspired me to put together the following dress code policy dos and don’ts.

Keep it simple (if you can)
If your experience shows that the people you work with are likely to understand the basic parameters of what kind of dress is generally acceptable in the various areas of your workplace, you can, and should, keep any appearance policy simple. Something like “Employees should dress in a manner that’s appropriate in light of their job” would be a place to start.

If requirements vary based on an employee’s duties on a particular day (e.g., some days a salesperson is in the office doing paperwork and not greeting the public, whereas on others she’s traveling as a representative of the company), you could start with something like “Employees should dress in a manner that’s appropriate in light of their job and/or their duties on a particular day.”

If you’re reading this and thinking “our staff doesn’t need to be told this; they already know,” then you needn’t bother revising your employee handbook just to add such general language, but you should consider it when it comes time for an ordinary handbook revision.

In workplaces where dress issues really aren’t a problem, you wouldn’t want to go overboard with an overly specific, mandatory policy. Employees who already appear to know better might be insulted, and the fanfare created by rolling out an unnecessarily specific policy could diminish credibility you would rather save for occasions when you have to implement some more important workplace policy.

As an example for your amusement, I’ll note that the “laundry list” (pun intended) in our firm’s “business casual” dress policy forbids, among other specific types of clothing, “bib overalls.” I’ve been at this law firm since 1992 and haven’t seen a pair of bib overalls yet! Maybe that was added in response to some “farm wear” fashion movement that occurred at our firm before I started, but I doubt it.

If, by contrast, you add nonconfrontational general language to your handbook in the ordinary course of events, it should cause no controversy. You may find it helpful during orientation discussions with new employees, however, and you can refer back to it if, for example, your formerly dapper sales staff starts wearing bib overalls on sales calls.

Audio Conference: Dress Codes, Tattoos, and Piercings: How HR Can and Can’t Control Employee Choices

If you need some specifics, use general language, too
If experience shows that you do need to provide some specific guidelines about what not to wear (e.g., “no bib overalls at board of directors meetings” or “no tuxedos on the shop floor”), you can certainly do that.

You should preface any list of specific dos and don’ts with general language like that described above and emphasize that the list is intended to exemplify, not limit, the meaning of your policy.

State something along the lines of “The following examples may help to illustrate (but don’t exclusively define) the meaning of the company’s general policy of requiring dress that’s appropriate in light of particular job duties and circumstances.”

If you make the mistake of stating a list that looks exclusive and you’re in a workplace where you anticipate some challenges to a “dress code,” you’ll always have someone who wants to debate whether certain dress straps are “spaghetti straps” or whether a “bolo tie” is a “tie.” Those examples bring us to our next point.

Reserve discretion
If having supervisors involved with the implementation of a dress policy is appropriate given your company’s structure, you may wish to have your policy include language to the effect that “Supervisors will ordinarily discuss dress policy concerns with you, and if deemed necessary, you may be required to change inappropriate clothing.”

I doubt you want to have one person who’s the final arbiter of all fashion decisions (though we do joke at our office that one of my particularly well-dressed partners should be our fashion czar), so you’ll likely have to give supervisors some role in the process.

Because the issue of clothing and style is relatively personal, including language emphasizing that the supervisor has a right to comment on dress issues will provide some legitimacy and context for the supervisor’s comments.

If necessary given various needs in your workplace, you also may want to emphasize that different departments may have different expectations — for example, variations in levels of customer contact and customer expectations.

You should note that (while I wouldn’t advise going into this level of detail in a policy, but so you know for implementation purposes) you can refuse to pay non-exempt employees for nonworking time involved in going home to change clothes.You shouldn’t dock the pay of exempt employees under such circumstances, however, because deductions of that sort could jeopardize their exempt status.

In other words, you can take disciplinary action against the CFO who wears cut-off jean shorts to shareholder meetings, but you can’t dock her pay.

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Train your supervisors
If it’s practical and appropriate to give your supervisors a role in implementing a dress code policy, you should train them about your company’s general expectations and areas of potential sensitivity and where they should go if they have questions.

In terms of general expectations, widely varying standards between departments wouldn’t be good for morale, so be sure that supervisors are all on the same page, being as specific as necessary in training meetings or presentations to supervisors.

Areas of potential sensitivity could include situations in which a particular supervisor, if untrained, might be unkind in assessing an employee’s choice of dress.

Supervisors must understand that comments about clothing can be taken very personally and that the company’s objective, with most jobs at least, is to ensure job-appropriate attire, not to require employees to follow the latest fashion trends.

Personal finances, body image, and other sensitive factors may contribute to a person’s wardrobe choices, so supervisors must approach dress policy discussions with sensitivity and an open mind.

That doesn’t mean that standards have to be relaxed, but it does mean that supervisors should take care not to appear callous in implementing those standards, and they should emphasize why the standards are required by a particular job or situation.

Before making a potentially unkind comment about a particular outfit, a supervisor should imagine how that comment might be perceived by a jury of her peers!

Another potentially sensitive issue could arise if employees get the impression that a supervisor is more interested in “checking them out” and commenting on their “suggestive” attire than in implementing company policy. (Dumb example: “Hey, mister, I hope you’ll wear that tank top on a surfing weekend with me, but it’s too ‘hot’ for work, you know?”).

I’ll spare you further dumb examples, hoping that will suffice to make the point that your supervisors should understand that discussions about the level of “suggestiveness” of attire aren’t likely to be productive or helpful and could be harmful. That brings us to our next point.

Basic Training for Supervisors: easy-to-read guides for supervisors

It’s not about sex
Judging from the fact that many form “personnel policy” manuals suggest that you prohibit “suggestive” attire at work, I may be in the minority on this, but I think that debates about “suggestiveness” in the context of a dress policy are missing the point.

The point of such a policy should be that you want employees to dress appropriately (i.e., professionally, neatly, or otherwise) for the job they’re employed to do.

A focus on “suggestiveness” almost always is interpreted to apply primarily to women and presumes that women are “suggesting” something by what they choose to wear. This appears to me to be a holdover from a time when that presumption was generally held, but it seems fair to say that no one should reasonably make such a presumption at this point.

I would argue that you shouldn’t care whether something is “suggestive” or not. If it’s not sufficiently professional or appropriate in the particular work situation, say so, but don’t focus on some presumed connection between clothing and flirtation.

This advice should save your supervisors from getting into some conversations on sensitive issues better left alone. That brings us to our next point.

Mastering HR: Discrimination

Don’t discriminate
While this topic is larger than we have space to cover here, it should be self-evident that your dress policy shouldn’t be written or applied in a way that could amount to disparate treatment or have a disparate impact on the basis of protected characteristics such as gender or religion.

Most of the gender-related issues worked themselves through the legal system some time ago (e.g., cases in which women were required to wear uniforms but men could wear ordinary business clothes), and hopefully you and your supervisors would know enough not to run afoul of bona fide religious attire issues.

To hold a place for such potential issues, you might want to include in your policy a phrase to the effect that “Exceptions to this general policy and guidelines should be addressed to the HR department.”

If a religious attire issue arises, for example, and a supervisor isn’t comfortable dealing with it alone or weighing religious accommodation issues, it would be best handled by HR in a more deliberative manner.

Appropriate language in your policy would provide that opportunity and demonstrate, if an enforcement agency asks, that the company didn’t intend to foreclose requests for exceptions that might have some potential grounding in employment discrimination law.

HR Guide to Employment Law, including chapters on discrimination, discipline, and sexual harassment

Bottom line
The bottom line is that you should remember each of the headings above in creating or editing a dress code policy, be realistic about the needs of your business and tailor your policy specifically to those needs (rather than adopting a canned policy that may not reflect your company culture and operations), reserve discretion, and approach potentially sensitive attire-related discussions in a direct but intelligent manner.

Oh, and I almost forgot: If you don’t want people wearing bib overalls in the office, make sure you say so specifically! (Just kidding.)