Mark Twain once said, “Clothes make the man.” In today’s world, where appearances often guide our choices, they can also make the business. There are different levels of what is acceptable, with formal being the dressiest, business casual being moderate, and casual being the laxest. While it is fairly obvious that a factory worker won’t be wearing a suit to work and a banker won’t be wearing shorts, a vast majority of American workers must look to their employers for what is acceptable dress for the workplace.
The first thing that must be determined when adopting a dress code is how detailed it should be. Giving your employees loose terms like “business casual” may seem like a good idea when drafting the employee handbook. Unfortunately, that can mean many different things to different employees. One person may think it means anything besides jeans, while another may interpret the term to mean one step below a suit. The actual intent probably lies somewhere in the middle. Spelling out your expectations is the safest way to ensure that staff is dressed the way you want the company represented. If chinos are okay but jeans are not, then the policy should state “no denim.” If casual shoes are allowed but sneakers are not, that should be clearly stated. Leaving the interpretation of your policy to your employees will most definitely spell disaster at some point. It is much easier to simply explain the “dos and don’ts” in the company’s employee handbook. When choosing the dress code for your company, keep in mind that you need to be comfortable enforcing the dress code you choose.
While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not have exact laws about dress code in the workplace, it does protect employees from discrimination when it comes to dress code enforcement. “While an employer may require all workers to follow a uniform dress code even if the dress code conflicts with some workers’ ethnic beliefs or practices, a dress code must not treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin.” For example, many men from non-western countries wear skirts or sarongs as casual wear. If a dress code allows for casual wear, then the native dress must be allowed. Religious discrimination must also be taken into consideration. The dress code must be modified for an employee if it “conflicts with an employee’s religious practices and the employee requests an accommodation.” An employer must also be careful when an employee has a disability and the dress code is causing an issue. It is okay to require certain dress, but accommodations must be made. There are exceptions in each situation, so a lawyer should be consulted anytime a request for dress code modification is made.
It is up to the employer to decide the image they want their employees to project. Being specific can be the best route to go if a certain perception is important. To completely avoid problems, many employers are choosing to provide workers with uniforms. This keeps the control in management’s hands and alleviates any awkward situations.
Whatever option you choose for your business’s dress code, keep in mind that consulting with your attorney before and during the process can protect the business from future discrimination lawsuits.
Sources: Prohibited Employment Policies/Practices. (n.d.) in EEOC.gov. retrieved September 12, 2012 from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/practices/index.cfm.