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What to Wear: Setting a Dress Code for Your Office

When you’re running a business, it’s tough to make time for trivialities like how people dress. Most people can dress appropriately for an office environment, right?

In most cases, yes. Most people understand what is appropriate to wear at work. They know to wear clean, sensible, non-revealing clothing that represents the business well. The dress requirements do not need to be formalized in a rulebook.

In fact, that’s how it works in many businesses. 45% of companies in the United States lack a dress code. The dress policies are merely implied. Many of the companies who do have dress requirements only address safety (work boots, eye protection, hair nets, long pants, etc.).

But at some point you’re bound to come across a person who doesn’t understand what’s appropriate and for whatever reason can’t pick up clues from other people. These individuals can make your other employees, customers, and vendors uncomfortable.

Even if you trust everyone’s work style, it’s helpful to have a written policy in case there’s a dispute or in the event that someone decides to change their routine.

You might think, “If someone is being inappropriate, I’ll address it with them privately.” That seems tactful, but rules are tough to enforce on an individual basis. It’s smarter to create a clear policy that applies to everyone.

Creating a dress code is a simple exercise, but it requires some careful considerations.

Ready to write your dress policy? Use this free template to get started!

Your dress code should reflect your culture

If your dress code doesn’t mesh with your culture, you’ll have a hard time hiring and retaining the right people. You’ll also make people uncomfortable in a work environment that doesn’t suit them.

“Ensure your guidelines are authentic to your business,” recommends human resource executive Ashley Wilczek.” If you are a progressive technology company employing millennials, requiring business suits and ties might not be the best fit.”

In most cases, it’s easier to define your company culture before worrying about a dress code. What type of company do you want to be? What do you want the work environment to be like? If you expect strict professionalism and a luxury appearance, suits and ties would be appropriate. But if you want a relaxed atmosphere of people who work on their own schedules, reduce your dress requirements.

Take common sense into account

Just like your culture, your dress code should consider your business’ purpose. Before you ban a type of dress, piercing or tattoo from your workplace, ask yourself if it really affects your business.

For instance, a law firm that regularly entertains clients would want to put on a professional appearance. Business formal attire would be reasonable. But if you lead a team of developers who work at desks all day and never see customers, jeans and T-shirts are usually fine.

Image: Tom Britt / Flickr
Image: Tom Britt / Flickr

Furthermore, your dress code should reach beyond clothing. Your dress code is an appropriate place to define other work environment policies that matter to you. You’ll want to include instructions for the following categories (if appropriate):

  • Tattoos
  • Piercings
  • Perfume/cologne
  • Makeup
  • Footwear
  • Dress code while traveling
  • Dress code on the customer’s site
  • Dress code for trade shows or conferences
  • Days or circumstances where the dress code is different (for instance, casual Fridays or scheduled days the investors visit)

Always abide by the law

There are no federal laws governing dress code policies. You may set whatever dress requirements you like as long as you do not discriminate on the basis of religion, age, gender, pregnancy, genetic information, race or disability.

It’s possible to discriminate against a protected class, even if the dress policy doesn’t do so explicitly. Disparate impacts are considered discrimination. Here are a few examples:

  • A hair length policy may discriminate against men whose religion prohibits cutting their hair.
  • A uniform policy that requires a specific garment that isn’t available in a size a pregnant woman needs is discriminatory.
  • A policy that requires a specific garment that doesn’t work with a disabled person’s medical device is discrimination, unless a reasonable accommodation is made.

A common mistake employers make is to implement a policy that creates a burden on one gender over another. Whatever burden you place on your employees should be equal to everyone, otherwise you risk a sexual discrimination lawsuit. In some states, for example, it’s unreasonable to require men to be clean shaven every morning because it’s a burden women don’t share.

Image: Highways England / Flickr
Image: Highways England / Flickr

Some states have their own protections, as well. Your state might protect workers from policies created on the basis of marital status, national origin, or sexual orientation. Make a quick call to your state’s labor department before you write a dress code policy, or consult with a human resources expert.

Follow your own code

Employees take their cues from the top. If you establish a dress code policy, be prepared to abide by it yourself every day. If your staff see you disregarding your own rules, two things will happen.

First, they’ll lose respect for you. Why would they respect someone who thinks they’re better than their own rules?

Second, they’ll disregard the policy as well. It might not happen right away, but eventually everyone will be dressing however they prefer.

So any standard you create should be one that you’re willing to meet. If you want to command respect and be treated like a leader, dress above your own dress code so others see that you take the work environment seriously.

Put the code in writing so it can be enforced

Policies are impossible to enforce unless they’re in writing. Include them in your employee handbook. They don’t have to be extensive, just available.

Human resources professional Suzanne Lucas recommends enforcing the policy consistently. “Companies get in trouble when they let the thin, gorgeous woman wear a micro-mini skirt, but tell the overweight woman to keep her skirts down to her knees,” she says. “If your dress code is reasonable to begin with, enforcing it is not generally a problem.”

Make sure your policy includes a structure of progressive disciplinary actions for dress code violations. These usually start with one or two verbal warnings, written warnings, and then serious consequences.

Let your policy evolve over time

Trends come and go. What was presentable yesterday may not be appropriate today, or vice versa. Three-piece suits were once the height of professionalism, but they hardly exist today. If new hires learn about your unusual dress code, you’ll struggle to bring in good talent.

Evaluate your dress code at least once a year. Have your employees contribute their thoughts as well. (This should be part of a broader review of your employee policies.) Make any changes so that your dress code reflects your business and culture.

Dress codes aren’t a substitute for good judgement

Just because you’ve developed a dress code doesn’t mean you or your employees can stop thinking for yourself. “No dress code can cover all contingencies so employees must exert a certain amount of judgment in their choice of clothing to wear to work,” says human resources expert Susan M. Heathfield. Encourage your team to speak with you if they have any questions.

Use this free template to create a dress code for your business!

We know that as a business leader, you don’t want to think about little details like a dress code. When there are customers to serve, marketing strategies to implement, and a product to build, it can be tough to tear yourself away from work that has immediate results and worry about office policies.

Nevertheless, your work environment matters. How your employees feel and behave at work can create lasting effects on your business. So a portion of your time must be spent developing and optimizing policies to structure their behavior and create a positive environment.

By starting with a dress code, you send a clear message to your employees that you take your business seriously, so they should too.