When warmer weather hits, dress code standards seem to be at the forefront of employers’ minds. They also seem to pop up and be revisited whenever an employee makes particular clothing or style decision –
“I can’t believe he wore that to work!”
“Her hair is rainbow-colored. RAINBOW! She has client meetings tomorrow!”
Ideally, dress codes should be simple. The hope is that something like “Employees are asked to dress appropriately for their role/position at our company” would suffice; however, because “appropriately” is subjective and open to broad interpretation, sometimes a bit more is needed.
How much, or little, can an employer dictate attire and appearance?
Employers have the right to set standards in attire and appearance to reflect their business and brand – to a certain extent. When crafting a dress code and personal appearance standards you can live with, consider your company as a whole. What is the product and/or service it provides? Are the majority of employees in call centers or out in the field visiting clients? Will clients regularly be stopping into the office? If uniforms are required, will specific items be provided by you, the employer (required in many states) or are the uniforms general (black pants/white shirt) that employees can provide themselves?
In other words, what makes sense for your business and the positions that make up your company?
Here are a few things to consider when thinking about policies around dress codes and personal appearance:
- Gender neutral dress codes are encouraged. Avoid outdated gender stereotype requirements, such as requiring men to wear pants and women to wear skirts or dresses. In some states, separate standards for men and women may be on shaky legal ground.
- What’s the employee’s role? No, you don’t HAVE to allow wildly colored hair or large tattoos, but again, consider the type of business you are in and the individual’s role before issuing a ban on these items of self-expression. A potentially great employee could be hiding under that purple mohawk.
- The shorter the better. A long laundry list of specifically banned items may not be necessary if the items you list as examples of acceptable work attire (with a few no-no’s thrown in for clarity) are clearly stated.
- Safety first. Job-related safety measures may require certain attire or appearance guidelines – closed toe/non-skid shoes, short nails, or lack of excessive jewelry, are examples of these. Be sure to list those to avoid misunderstandings.
- Consider the climate. Dress codes may differ in some climates during summer and winter; be sure to factor in both weather and workplace when specifying attire. Intermittent updates may be necessary as temperatures climb.
- Be consistent. If jeans are not allowed at work, ensure that no one, not even managers, gets by with sporting a pair. If logo shirts must be worn, allowing Joe to pop in without it every other day should not be permitted. Differing standards can exist for level of position, role, etc. but everyone within that job category should then be held to them.
- Accommodations for disability or religious belief are exceptions to the consistency clause.
Caution: There IS difference between a job-related safety requirement and just “preference” when it comes to personal appearance standards. Recently, laws were passed in New York City and the state of California that prohibit employer discrimination of natural hair, hair texture, and/or and protected hairstyles as a sub-characteristic of race. That means even if an employer would prefer all employees “look a certain way” it may not be a lawful practice to require a haircut or prohibit certain hairstyles.
Dress code/appearance policies in the workplace continuously evolve. It may be a good idea to dust off your employee handbook every so often, check for necessary legal updates, and — at the same time — see if your policies around attire and appearance could use a refresh.
This article does not constitute legal advice and there are subtle variations in employment law as it pertains to this topic, depending on where your business operates. It is strongly suggested that you seek consultation or legal counsel before making decisions about policies.
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