What’s In a Dress Code?

Written by Liz Ryan

The hot summer months will soon be upon us, and HR departments are already girding for the annual “dress code controversies.” Summer is the time when heretofore conservatively dressed employees suddenly show up in body-baring fashions.

T-shirts may be allowed on casual Fridays, but how do you make clear the huge difference between the plain, tasteful Gap variety and one that screams the name of a rock band or brand of beer? Summer is when the company dress code policy can get a real workout-so you need to make sure you have one in place.

You don’t have to spend hours agonizing over language like “Types of tops not allowed in our facilities include halter, tube, spaghetti-strap and midriff. Spandex content in all garments cannot exceed 25 percent.” As a former HR executive who has personally overseen the creation of at least ten dresscode policies in my day, I can attest that 99 percent of them were a huge waste of effort. But there IS a way you can convey to your employees what your company deems appropriate office attire.

In the worst cases, dress code policies are not just ineffective – they’re also offensive. They can alienate more employees than any other kind of policy. That’s because they inadvertently manage to treat employees like children AND get queasily specific in their discussion of what employees are allowed to wear to work. Does your CEO really want to sign off on a policy that goes into detail about thongs showing above low-rise khakis?

When you put a dress code policy in writing, you not only have to cover the types of clothes employees are allowed to wear, but also their cut, fabrics, logos, collars, sandals, sneakers and more. Pretty soon, an otherwise reasonable policy becomes mired in whether a cap-sleeve top is actually sleeveless, and whether a short leather skirt is appropriate with a Chanel jacket. And, short of ordering an employee to disrobe on command (which could bring on a major lawsuit), how can you truly determine the spandex content of a garment without reading its label?

That’s why it’s so tricky to put a dress code into writing. Invariably there will be the mischievious employee who, within a week of the policy’s release, will test the waters by wearing something completely inappropriate – just to prove it can be done. Someone else will likely violate the policy while looking completely demure – for example, wearing a prim high-buttoned blouse with a microscopic miniskirt. Short of taking a ruler to the offending employee’s skirt hem – like the nuns did back in Catholic school – there’s not a whole lot you can do about it without looking completely foolish.

There’s another hurdle that you can avoid by not putting a comprehensive dress code policy into writing. Most such policies have little to say about men’s clothing, and that can backfire. Somehow, it’s women who are perceived as causing all the “trouble,” perhaps because women’s fashions change more frequently and more dramatically. Often a dress code policy will merely stipulate that “men must wear shirts with collars.” Collars, you say? What about the collared shirts that Prince – the artist later known as Squiggle – used to wear? How about the “puffy shirt” that Jerry Seinfeld wore in one famous episode of his long-running TV show? What would your CEO say if he saw that shirt next to him in the elevator?

At the same time, dress code policies are essential because most firms simply don’t know how to tell people, individually, in the moment, that what they are wearing on that particular day doesn’t cut the mustard. That’s not easy, because it can quickly get personal. However, you can’t expect to have policies to spell out every little thing that any employee might do during the course of a day. For example: “It is not permitted for call center operators, when listening to customers relate their difficulties on the phone, to interrupt the customer with a Daffy Duck imitation, or an imitation of any other Mel Blanc character.”

Or, “It is strictly forbidden for employees to create enormous comical drawings to tape to the office windows for the amusement of workers in the nearby high rises.”

You see – there are certain things that companies just need to handle as they arise and proper attire is one of them, in my view. Yes, you should have a dress code policy in place. But instead of agonizing over every possible style, cut, fabric, hemline or loud beer advertisement, keep it simple:

“We expect employees to dress appropriately at all times, especially if they will be dealing with clients in person. Use your own good judgment and err on the side of caution.”

Concise and professional, this statement accomplishes something very important. It signals that you trust your employees to make their own decisions when they get dressed each day. And if you think about it, a person who can’t make good decisions about what to wear to work, probably has judgment problems in other areas, too. When a manager is stressing out about an employee’s sartorial choices, that’s often just the tip of the iceberg. What manager and employee really need to talk about is appropriateness in general, as well as good business judgment. And that’s a good conversation to have.

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