Workplace Dress Codes: What’s Allowed?
If you own a business or are a Human Resources manager, you know that establishing and enforcing a dress code is not the easiest feat. It becomes even harder during the “dog days” summer months, when we are used to seeing the masses clad in tank tops, shorts, and sandals. In the age of the casualization of dress in the workplace, there’s a fine line between allowing less formal clothing and making the office environment too breezy. Consider the following topics when you are creating or revising a dress code policy:
The industry or sector you work in can shape what type of apparel or dress you allow in the workplace. Financial and corporate institutions have always been known for requiring more formal dress—picture the 3-piece suit for men and the power suit for women in the 1980s. However, the landscape for those industries has shifted in the direction of more casual; even investment and law firms have adopted casual Fridays or summer dress days over the course of the last decade.
Many businesses have revised their dress code policies in order to make their employees feel less stuffy, both figuratively and literally, especially if and when there are no customers or clients in the vicinity during those days or times. “Jeans Fridays” have also become a customary practice in our culture, and have even spawned opportunities for fundraising, such as charging a “fee” in exchange for being allowed to wear jeans and then donating that money to a social issue or philanthropic cause.
Your dress code policy needs to be clear and must be comprised of specific terminology. What you might consider to be “professional,” “proper,” or “presentable” may not reflect the same notions that your employees have—these terms can be subjective. It is important to include examples in your dress code of items your employees CAN wear, and not just items that they CAN’T.
Also, while incorporating specific guidelines based on gender has been an orthodox practice in dress code guidelines up until now, the diversified climate of our society may buck this tradition. An example of this is identifying too restrictively what women can’t wear, such as hair accessories, jewelry, or spaghetti straps on tops or dresses. In some cases, these restrictions can be interpreted as being discriminatory, or can become misconstrued when dealing with gender lines.
With diversity efforts such a huge factor in the corporate world these days, you must be extra cognizant of religious, cultural, and racial practices. Modern dress code policies should not restrict head or body coverings, certain shoe styles, tattoo or body markings, or hair grooming or coloring practices since some of these could be indicative of religious or cultural observances or rituals. In HR, we know that certain comments or feedback could be construed as discriminatory, and therefore, it is best to veer away from these forms of self-expression in your dress code policy.
While navigating this aspect of corporate policy can be difficult, if you center your dress code on propriety by listing specific allowances and restrictions and you don’t mistake defiance for individuality, then you are likely to be successful in enforcing it. The key is clarity and ensuring that this HR policy is written and acknowledged by employees do avoid conflict and confusion that could result in complaints and legal ramifications down the line.
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