Dress sense or senseless

Should you have a dress code or policy for your staff?

Gone are the days when there appeared to be a very clear standard of workplace attire in the office.

The work culture has changed and with it the expectations of dress. Suits, ties, no trousers on women and tights are now often deemed as old fashioned or even archaic.

Even where companies wish to introduce a code and standard they balk from doing so at the risk of offending their staff. However, even in a casual environment, it’s best to let your staff know what you will or won’t accept in terms of work attire.

If you have a more formal business dress expectation it is even more critical to explain the what, and the why.

Why? Because not all clothing is suitable for the office. Clothing that works well for the beach, garden, dance clubs, exercise sessions, and the gym may not be appropriate for a ‘professional’ environment or suitable to make an appearance at work. Likewise, clothing that reveals too much flesh, be that cleavage, back, chest, feet, stomach or exposes your underwear is often not appropriate for a place of business, even in a business casual setting.

Think about it. When you first meet someone in any environment what do you think when they turn up wrinkled? What if their clothes are torn, dirty, or frayed? Go on admit it – even the more free and open minded of you would judge them if they turned up looking messy. First impressions count, and as the old adage says – ‘you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’.

Additionally, you don’t want the company to be liable, vicariously, through the actions of your staff for claims of harassment or discrimination do you? Clothing that has words, terms, or pictures that may be offensive to other employees must be treated as unacceptable. Sure, the use of the company logo is encouraged, and even in a more casual environment sports teams, university, and fashion brand names on clothing are generally acceptable.

Next, as a general principle, the standards you set as an employer should be as applicable to male as to female employees, and should apply to all levels within your structure. It’s critical that this principle is fundamental to your expressed guidelines. Making wearing a shirt and tie, for instance, a requirement for men and not women (!) can lead to a claim of less favourable treatment on the basis of sex in contravention of anti-discrimination legislation.

Women can be required to comply with a dress code, but where there are no items of clothing that were imposed on women it can be argued that a male employee’s freedom of expression is fettered if he has to wear a particular item of clothing, whereas women often have more choices available to them as they do not have to wear any particular item of clothing.

Also remember that employees from ethnic minorities and other religions should be able to conform to your standards, whilst consideration should always be given to their religious beliefs and obligations and these should be accommodated whenever possible.
So what should such a policy, if you are going to introduce one, include?

• Guidelines on what is, and is not considered appropriate and when.
• Employers may wish to consider including expectations related to employee grooming, excessive cologne, personal appearance and hygiene including the wearing/showing of tattoos, jewellery, hairstyles and facial hair.

(But be careful how you introduce that – don’t forget the backlash that the entertainment chain HMV, which has since entered into administration, received on the introduction of their ‘no visible tattoos’, nor allowing scruffy shoes policy in October 2012). In creating any dress code or appearance policy, employers should be mindful of the specific needs of the job and the business as well as safety and health considerations.

• Don’t forget to address footwear requirements and guidelines
• The code should also be proportionate and not onerous on the staff – let’s not forget the UBS furore when the bank created brief uproar in 2012 when it unveiled a 43-page dress code for staff. It had to back down in the face of mockery over its demand for women to wear skin coloured underwear and men to have monthly haircuts – a little excessive I’m sure we would all agree!
• Employers should also have a strategy in place for handling dress code violation – have you included such breaches within your Disciplinary policy guidelines?
If you do introduce a dress code it should be communicated to all employees and you, the employer should provide training on the policy.

So have you shared your expectations with your staff or are you still cringing as they walk in the door?