Question:

I’m wondering what my rights are as far as enforcing an employee dress code. Most of my employees seem to know how to dress appropriately, but there are one or two individuals who always seem to be pushing the boundary of what I consider to be proper workplace attire. Can I actually require my employees to dress a certain way, even though they don’t wear uniforms?

Answer:

It may not surprise you to learn that ensuring proper employee attire is a problem many employers struggle with. While dressing appropriately for the workplace may seem like common sense to most people, the reality is that many individuals make inappropriate wardrobe choices when dressing for work. This may be due to inexperience in the workplace, or even to things like differences in culture or socioeconomic status. For these reasons, it is important to address the employee attire issue diplomatically. At the same time, the way your employees look at work reflects on your business as a whole, and is therefore important. You as an employer therefore have every right to ensure that your employees are dressed appropriately when they arrive for work.

The easiest way to ensure that your employees are appropriately attired is to implement a written employee dress code. This kind of policy can be easily incorporated into your employee handbook or personnel manual. A written dress code is useful because it provides employees with a reference source if they are unsure about what they can and can’t wear to work. It also gives you, as the employer, something to rely on if an employee does arrive for work dressed inappropriately.

A typical employee dress code will explain that there is a policy in place with regard to workplace attire, and will give examples of clothing and other items that are considered inappropriate. For instance, many employee dress codes prohibit items such as mini skirts, denim, clothing made with transparent material, sneakers, excessive jewelry, and anything that would show a bare midriff. Some employers also require employees to conceal any visible tattoos, and prohibit the wearing of body jewelry, such as nose or eyebrow rings. Lastly, many employers incorporate a prohibition on perfume or cologne use into their dress code policies, as these substances can be very bothersome to other employees.

Depending on the nature of your business, there are other restrictions you may wish to incorporate into your dress code policy. For instance, you might want to require that employees not wear open-toed or high-heeled shoes, because of potential safety reasons. Employees who work on production lines should also be prohibited from wearing dangly jewelry or loose clothing that could potentially get caught in machinery with which they are working. Some employers, whose employees interact with the public on a regular basis as representatives of the company may also have strict guidelines with regard to things like hairstyles, facial hair (i.e., beards, mustaches), and makeup.

You should note, however, that in some situations an individual’s physical appearance can be affected or dictated by his or her religious beliefs, and an employee may therefore feel that he or she is unable to comply with your dress code. In this instance, you may be required to accommodate that individual’s religious beliefs and to make an exception to your dress code, unless doing so would be unduly burdensome to you as an employer.

As mentioned above, it is best to have your dress code policy in writing. Doing so eliminates the potential for confusion or misunderstanding on the part of your employees, and also gives you something to rely on if an employee’s attire becomes or continues to be problematic. How you choose to enforce your dress code is up to you—you may start with a verbal warning for a first infraction, followed by a written warning, followed by more serious measures (e.g., suspension or termination) if the employee continues to violate the policy. Whatever your disciplinary process, your dress code policy should clearly state that failure to comply with its requirements does constitute grounds for disciplinary action.

To avoid problems down the road, your employees should be required to sign an acknowledgement stating that they are familiar with your company’s dress code policy. For existing employees, you will want to distribute your new dress code policy for their review, and then require them to sign off on a form stating that they have read the policy and are familiar with its terms. Once the policy is incorporated into your employee handbook, the general acknowledgement that employees should sign after receiving their handbook should be sufficient to indicate their familiarity with your dress code policy.
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