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You Wear It Well: Dress Codes in the Workplace

As the manager of a business, you want to focus on those things that drive success – productivity, innovation, performance, and strategy. As you work to grow the business, you probably do not want to deal with more mundane office matters. Sometimes, however, these issues can have a major impact on employee morale, and they must be handled well. One such issue is the employee dress code. It would be nice if all employees used common sense every day and wore tasteful, professional clothing. Taste and professionalism, however, can be in the eye of the beholder. It is likely that your organization needs some kind of guidance on appropriate dress.

If the organization has an employee handbook, it probably has a section on acceptable dress for the workplace. Is the policy too vague to be useful or overly specific? Does it comply with legal requirements? Does it require dress that is more formal than necessary given the amount of customer contact employees have? Does it allow clothing that is too informal for regular customer contact? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, consider updating it. If not, make sure that you are enforcing it. Also, it may be wise to periodically remind employees of the dress code policy. This will inform new employees and reinforce the policy with veterans.

The organization should enforce the dress code without partiality. Individuals and groups of employees should be treated equally. Federal employment laws and regulations permit employers to set employee dress codes and to treat men and women differently within social norms. It is acceptable to require men to cut their hair while not making the same demand of women. It may not be acceptable to require women to wear skirts or men to wear uniforms while not making equivalent demands of the other sex.

Be aware that federal and state laws protect employees from discrimination on the basis of religion. Employers must make reasonable accommodations to employees who want to dress a certain way for religious observance reasons. Some men may cover their heads or wear beards for this reason; women may wear clothing that almost completely covers them up; employees of both sexes may wear certain pieces of jewelry. Unless complying with these requests would pose an undue hardship for the organization, the employees’ wishes must be honored. Employers may refuse such requests if the clothing or style creates a safety hazard; in most other cases, they must make the accommodation.

On the other hand, the law does not require employers to allow workers to display tattoos and body piercing. Rather, employers are free to make business decisions about the display of these styles. Some employers may permit it for employees who seldom or never interact with customers. Others may permit it for everyone, especially if their customers frequently have tattoos or piercings. Still others may decide that it is inappropriate for their businesses in all cases. The decision is entirely the employer’s, based on the balance between business needs and the need to attract and retain good employees.

This is really what dress codes are all about. Every business projects an image, and how its employees dress affects that image. Managers naturally want to put their best foot forward with customers. At the same time, a good workforce is not easy to build and retain. A too-strict dress code will repel good job candidates and may cause valuable employees to consider leaving. Inflexibility may violate anti-discrimination laws and inspire workers to file lawsuits. It is in an employer’s best interest to develop a dress code that reflects well on the business and keeps employees happy.