Question:

I have just joined a mid size service company in the human resources department. Most of our employees have regular interaction with the public, our customers. I am appalled at the outfits some of the employees put together, and I have been given authorization to draft a dress code policy for our company. What are the factors I should consider?

Answer:

Acceptable dress styles for the workplace have changed in the past few decades. The first consideration is the type of business you are in, and what the practical aspects of dress may be for your industry and geographic location. For example, a professional services company may choose a traditional business dress code, usually business suits, including neckties for men. By contrast, a business that employs laborers would want to make certain the dress code was appropriate for the physical work performed, and providing appropriate safety attire (for example goggles, work boots.)

The employer also has to be wary of discrimination laws, which can be unintentionally violated by dress code and personal appearance policies. For example, prohibiting the wearing of hats or other head coverings may constitute discrimination based on religion. Also, in California, it is an unlawful business practice to refuse to allow women to wear pants at work. Any dress code you adopt needs to be rationally related to your business needs.

What types of dress codes are there?

  • “Traditional business dress,” generally means a suit and tie. Although the business casual dress code has gained popularity in the workplace, the traditional business wardrobe is still the standard in many workplaces. For women this means a suit or tailored dress in conservative colors, with low-heeled, closed-toe pumps and conservative jewelry. For men, business dress means a conservative suit, plus a long-sleeved shirt, tie and leather oxfords or loafers.
  • “Business casual” is now used by many businesses that have contact with the public. Generally, “business casual” means dressing professionally and neat, yet relaxed. For example, for men, khakis with a long-sleeved shirt may be worn. For women, it can include a dress, skirt and blouse, or pants.
  • “Mainstream casual” is a term used to describe a style between “casual” and “business casual.” This style is comfortable, but is also professional. For men higher-quality khakis, microfiber or gabardine pants with solid or subtly patterned pressed cotton shirts, polo-style shirts or sweaters may be worn. For women, skirts or pants with coordinating blouses or tops, are appropriate.
  • “Casual” is appropriate in very casual offices. It may also be the standard on a “casual Friday” or a day designated for cleaning offices, or taking a client to a sporting event. Casual usually includes denim, cotton or corduroy pants paired with knit or plaid shirts and casual shoes.

When drafting your policy, it is important to define the acceptable manner of dress, and give specific examples so the employees know what is required. If different departments in your company will have different standards, make sure to specify which standards apply to each department. The policy should also explain what will happen if an employee violates the dress code. Put the policy in writing, in your company handbook, or in a stand alone written policy. If an employee asks, make reasonable accommodation when the situation requires an exception. Be prepared to accommodate requests for religious practices and disabilities, such as head coverings and facial hair. Finally, apply consistent discipline for dress code violations.
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