What not to Wear: Dress Codes & the Workplace

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Last month, retailer JC Penney's dress code made headlines when an employee posted pictures of herself in an outfit that her manager said was against the dress code. At issue were the young woman’s shorts, which she says she purchased in the career section of the store. The manager told her to go home and change, and the employee responded by quitting. News outlets picked up on the story, and it opened up a debate about whether or not JC Penney’s dress code was fair and if it was sexist to deem the woman’s outfit inappropriate for work. Regardless on your opinion on this matter (or if it was even worthy of making national news), this situation is a good reminder to review your company’s dress code in order to avoid possible problems in the future.

What to Include in the Dress Code

Many workplaces have adopted a casual style. It is not uncommon to walk into a workplace and see executives in jeans and T-shirts. When I used to work in Santa Cruz, the rare candidate who showed up for an interview in a suit looked out of place in the casual office environments I worked in. Even if you want to keep things casual, it is important to have a clear policy that spells out what is not allowed.

Decide where you want to draw the line. Are shorts acceptable? What about footwear? Are flip flops OK? What if an employee has tattoos and piercings? Do tattoos need to be covered up and piercings removed? Remember to also include something in your policy about employees not wearing clothing with offensive images or language. Wearing such clothing may be a violation of your company’s harassment policy. Provide examples of inappropriate clothing (e.g. no tank tops, shorts flip flops or bare midriff shirts). Your policy should spell out any specific uniform requirements, such as color of pants, type of shirt and name tag placement. Include a statement that employees may be sent home to change if they show up to work dressed in violation of the dress code.

Avoiding an Unfair Policy

In the case of the young woman who worked for JC Penney, one claim thrown around in the media was that the policy was sexist. This is a good reminder to review your policy to ensure that it is not more harsh on women. According to an article in Business Insider, a JC Penney spokesperson claimed that their policy prohibited shorts for all employees, not just women. In this case, it would be hard to call the JC Penney policy sexist because it applied the same standard to shorts for men and women. If the JC Penney policy had only barred shorts for women, it would be easy to see how the policy could be sexist. Apply similar standards to all employees.

When a policy relies too heavily on cultural norms for what constitutes femininity or masculinity, it may exclude people who do not express their gender within those norms. Not all women feel comfortable in a skirt, so even if you want your employees to dress business formal, avoid a restrictive policy that says women may only wear suits with skirts. Some states have laws that protect gender identity and expression, and employers are required to allow employees to dress in a way consistent with their gender identity or expression. Avoid a policy that may violate this law.

Remember that you must make accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs. Even if your policy states that employees may not wear headscarves, you will need to accommodate an employee who does so for religious reasons. When drafting your policy, consider mentioning that employees may ask for religious accommodation and train managers on what this means.

Clearly Communicate the Policy to Employees

The JC Penney case illustrates why it is important to communicate your dress code policy to employees from day one. The young woman claimed she did not know about the policy that prohibited shorts. Not only should you have a written policy in your employee handbook that details the dress code, but you should also spend time explaining the dress code to new hires.

As with the written version, give examples of what is and is not acceptable. You can have  pictures included in your orientation presentation to show examples of employees who are dressed appropriately. Allow new hires to ask questions to ensure that they understand the policy.

How to Handle Dress Code Violations

Even after you educate your employees on the dress code, you may still have employees who violate it. I once worked in HR at a manufacturing and distribution company. The dress code for warehouse employees was pretty casual. Shorts and T-shirts were acceptable, provided that the clothing was free of offensive words, images or logos. A warehouse employee walked into HR with a T-shirt that said, F— the Yankees.” The F word was spelled out, so this was obviously not appropriate at work even though the warehouse was a casual environment. We asked the employee to turn the shirt inside out or go home to change. He was unhappy about it, but he eventually went back to work in an inside out shirt.

If you have to send an employee home to change, you can require them to clock out. This is a burden for both the employer and employee. The employer is short staffed while the employee is gone, and the employee loses out on wages they could have earned if they did not have to go home to change. This is another reason why it is important to educate employees on the company’s dress code.

If you notice many employees are dressing too casual and are not quite meeting the dress code, hold a group meeting to review the policy. Give employees a copy of the dress code, and have them sign something saying they received it. If there still continue to be problems after the meeting, discuss the policy with employees on an individual basis.

How do you address dress code violations in your workplace? Have you run into any problems with employees who try to push the boundaries of what is acceptable? Leave your stories in the comments.