As companies grow in size, the inevitable happens: Someone comes to work in attire that just isn't right. Maybe it's the party dress from the night before, or the "too short" cutoffs and flip-flops that are making you (and other employees) cringe. You decided to implement a dress code, but how do you go about enforcing it without looking like an ogre?
Remember: you do have the legal authority to regulate the way your employees dress. If you decide that a formal dress code is the way to go, then you need to be mindful of the following:
The image you want to project: This can vary depending on whether your employees have regular in-person contact with customers. The more your employees interact with the public, the more likely a dress code will be received as logical and necessary. The type of customer matters as well. Selling to doctors requires a whole different attitude toward dress than does selling to skateboarders.
But, if customer contact is infrequent, you can even have a "modified" dress code for days that customer contact is likely. If you are thinking of uniforms, to ensure a standardized image, then try to get employee input and make selection fun. Hold a contest and vote. If you get employees involved, they are likely to accept—and maybe even like—the final decision.
The effect on work performance: Face it: certain tasks are performed more efficiently if the worker is comfortable. Requiring hard-soled shoes for a person on their feet all day is asking for problems. Telling a computer programmer to wear a tie and jacket will probably see you back-filling for all the employees that quit. Remember to think of the tasks each employee is performing and the level of productivity you want. Be reasonable and logical.
The effect on company morale: Any time you take away an employee's choice, there will be a hit to morale. If you adopt a common-sense policy and message it delicately, you can minimize the impact. Also, even if the reason is due to a few "bad actors," never blame employees for your decision to have a dress code.
Safety concerns: Preventing sandals at the construction site or mandating no loose clothing at a machine shop are not matters of taste; they are matters of worker safety.
Navigating legal minefields: There are a few no-nos when it comes to dress codes. Be careful of any dress code that might cause the following legal headaches:
- Discrimination: Whether it is religion, gender, ethnicity, disability or some other protected class, you need to be very careful about how a dress code will be viewed as veiled discrimination. You should make every reasonable attempt to accommodate employees with disabilities and religious beliefs that affect their dress. If you can show a real business justification and that there is no discriminatory intent or effect, then contact an HR or legal professional to get advice on how to implement it in a fair and legal manner. While it is OK to have different grooming criteria for men and women, any policy has to ensure they have equal opportunities when it comes to employment.
- Sexual harassment: Pictures of "what not to wear" can be upsetting to employees and constitute a hostile work environment.
- Political speech: If you want to stop a particular political message, you are treading in dangerous ground. Seek the advice of a lawyer who understands when you are able to place limits on political speech.
- Unions: If you run a business that uses organized labor, make sure to check the collective bargaining agreement before laying down the law.
Put it down in writing: Make sure your policy is not open to interpretation. Write it down and circulate it to all employees. Emphasize the company's image and the business and safety reasons for the policy. Try to stay away from ambiguous terms like "proper" and "appropriate;" they mean different things to different people. Be sure to list out exceptions and if you are allowing a more relaxed policy—like permitting shorts in the summer—be sure to communicate that this is a perk and not a guaranteed right.
Enforcement: I have written this in several articles, but policies that are unequally enforced are often worse than not having a policy at all. Set up a method to communicate and deal with violations and be even-handed with application.
In the end, do your very best to be fair, logical, reasonable and nondiscriminatory. A lot of this can be handled through communication with your employees. If you make it a conversation with your employees rather than an order, you can learn a lot as you craft an appropriate dress code.
Chas Rampenthal was previously general counsel at LegalZoom. This article first appeared on Inc.com.