HR policy

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.

Stop Letting Restrictive Policies Get in the Way of Work


By Stephanie Hammerwold

For almost two years now I have been building my own business with my partner. Being away from the corporate life has given me time to reflect on all the structures we impose on the workplace and whether or not such things are effective tools to maintaining an ordered and fair environment. As a human resources professional, much of my work life has been devoted to establishing policies and processes for this reason. Things such as harassment training and anti-discrimination policies are in place to create a fair, equitable and healthy environment and can make the workplace better. But what about some of the other processes we put in place? Are things like open office plans and performance reviews getting in the way of productivity and creativity in the workplace?

Restrictive Policies

I got my start in HR at a company that was a policy heavy environment. As a result, I learned quite a bit about HR, labor law and how to draft a thorough policy. Unfortunately, this approach aggravated employees. With so many rules, it was hard to keep every process straight. Written policies help communicate the rules and guidelines of a workplace, but if your policies are extremely detailed and restrictive, it can be hard for even the best employee to never mess up. Restrictive policies also put the emphasis on the rules rather than the work. Find a happy medium between satisfying legal requirements and meeting the needs of employees.

At one point I was given the task of writing a payroll procedures policy. My first draft was one page, by the time it went through many rounds of revisions, it ended up being six pages long and included instructions that would make building Ikea furniture look easy. The written policy did little to help managers follow the correct payroll procedures because it was too long, detailed and complex.

One step many companies avoid in drafting policies is to get input from employees. When writing or updating a policy, try to get a few employees to read it and give feedback. Ask what parts are confusing and if there is anything that interferes with the way employees work. A good policy should take into account how people work at your business. Otherwise the policy takes over and gets in the way of people doing their jobs.

Open Office Plans

I am not a fan of open office plans. Every time I read something talking about how open office plans foster community and encourage creativity, I want to build a blanket fort and go hide in there with my laptop while I work. The beauty of working from a home office is that I do not have to worry about some manager deciding to throw me in a big room with a bunch of coworkers.

Open office plans can be noisy and full of distractions. In an article for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova points to work done by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis in 2011. She writes, “He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission,…they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction.”

Every time I read something talking about how open office plans foster community and encourage creativity, I want to build a blanket fort and go hide in there with my laptop while I work.

I recently wrote a piece on open office plans for Blogging4Jobs in which I expressed my dislike of the open office plan. When I shared the post on various social media sites, I did not have one person who spoke up in favor of the open office plan. In all my years in HR, I have also worked to solve noisy work environment problems for countless office workers. While I am sure there are those out there who thrive in a noisy, busy environment, I know many of us like a calm environment in order to focus. What makes me cringe whenever I hear someone touting open office plans is that it seems to be a solution thrown on a whole office without much thought toward the needs of individual workers.

When considering the implementation of major changes to foster creativity and communication, ask employees what would help them do their jobs better rather than assuming the latest trend will improve the workplace.

Performance Reviews

How can I not bring up the dreaded performance review in a discussion of restrictive policies and processes? Someone in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) LinkedIn group started a discussion on performance reviews recently. An overwhelming number of HR professionals weighed in to say that the traditional annual review needs to go. Despite many of us in the profession disliking annual reviews, they persist.

Annual reviews attempt to summarize a whole year’s worth of work in a few pages. Goals are set on an annual basis as though work happens in 12-month periods. Feedback given in this format is stressful. I have worked with very few managers who get excited about reviews. Most of them grumble and worry about what to say. Employees get anxiety about what their managers will say and often only focus on whether the review will include a pay increase without hearing any feedback that their manager is giving them.

Performance management should be ongoing. Managers should meet with their employees on a regular basis to check in on projects, ask where the employee needs help, suggest areas for improvement and to give positive feedback. If a manager documents these interactions, the need for the annual performance review disappears. Also, making performance management and feedback a regular part of the work flow takes the stress off of formalizing such conversations.

The key here is to make the process a little less formal. With proper training, managers should be able to develop a system of ongoing feedback and documentation that can be used to justify employment decisions without using the annual review. Such an approach puts the focus on the work and takes it away from unnecessary paperwork.

What types of policies and processes get in the way of doing your job? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Konnikova, Maria. “The Open-Office Trap.” The New Yorker 7 January 2014. Online.