We came across the article “Fashion Statement,” on the Society for Human Resource Management website, www.shrm.org. This article discusses the complexities of choosing and enforcing an office dress code. Since uniforms are not issued in an office setting, individuals have a partial say in what they wear. Although this is liberating, it can also lead to confusion over what is and isn’t appropriate workplace attire. The following will summarize the common types of dress codes utilized in the office as well as how to avoid enforcing a policy in an inconsistent or offensive manner.
According to the article, there are five common dress code categories for the office setting. The first four are business formal, business professional, business casual, and casual in order from most to least dressy. The last category can be referred to as “dress for your day” or “flexible dressing.” This category gives the employee the most liberty in what they can wear. Instead of always enforcing one level of formality, offices that have a flexible dressing policy let each employee dress in a manner that is appropriate for his/her task of the day. For example, an employee may dress business casual in the office but business formal on when they meet with important clients. There has been a growing change in dress code expectations over recent years. The article states, “Offices are becoming increasingly casual, as comfort-loving Millennials take over the workplace and the Silicon Valley ethos exemplified by Facebook founder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg’s T-shirt and hoodie spreads into other business sectors.” That said, it is still important to establish a definitive dress code that specifies prohibited attire as discussed below.
“Fashion Statement” states that many dress codes leave too much room for personal interpretation. As an example, the rather vague words “revealing” and “distracting” are noted as common words found in dress code policies. If a policy uses subjective adjectives to define a company’s dress expectations, it is likely that an employee will be called out on attire that he/she thought was well within the parameters of the dress code. It is also important to consider the fact that dress codes are often more of a burden on women than men. The article explains that the professional women of the 1980s dressed in a more serious and masculine manner in an attempt to gain equal respect in the workplace, but this style did not last. It states, “They eventually dropped that armor and began wearing brighter colors, dresses and separates. Often, though, the softer styles were misinterpreted as too sexy or not serious enough.”
Subjective criticism about women’s attire is a very sensitive topic. Notably, men are wearier to point out dress code violations on women in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. An anonymous contributor to the article states, “‘Men don’t want women to think they are checking them out.’” The best way to avoid controversy and misunderstanding is to implement a very clear dress code that bands specific attire such as tank tops, shorts, and miniskirts. It is also crucial that the dress code is equally enforced on all employees. Specifically, the article points out that people should never be exempt from the dress code just because they look good in a certain outfit.
Finally, it is important to discuss laws regarding workplace dress codes. According to the article, it is federally legal to enforce different dress standards for men and women, but only if the dress codes put an equal burden on both genders. It is also noted that transgender individuals should be allowed to wear clothes that match their orientation rather than their biological sex. Companies may violate civil rights laws if they refuse to respect gender expression. Employers must also allow exceptions when a dress code interferes with a religious belief or disability if doing so would not place undue hardship on the company. To complicate dress code legality, certain states and cities have additional laws that put further restrictions on dress codes. Employers must be familiar with all relevant laws before creating dress codes.
In summary, creating and enforcing dress codes in the office has proven to be more difficult than one would assume. The take away from this article is that dress codes should be very clear as to what is expected for all employees. Instead of relying on subjective adjectives, policy makers should specifically state what types of clothing are permitted or prohibited. Exceptions to the dress code must only be made when refusing to do so would infringe on civil rights. Take time to review your organizations dress code and enforcement policy to avoid possible legal or internal conflict.