Don't Let Workplace Attire Guidelines Wear Thin

I’ll be honest, I am very much enjoying the beautiful summer we are experiencing. Long, sunny days that stretch right out to relaxing evenings without too many of our typical Manitoba mosquitoes. As well, I see much less traffic on my drive to work, because so many people are on vacation. Aaaah, summer is so much more relaxing.

Yet, the word "relaxing" can also be a problem in a summer workplace. There are often issues that can arise from employees who take the summer dress code a bit too far — in other words, they are simply too "relaxed" and that is negatively impacting their colleagues as well as the corporate professional image.

No matter what, at least one or two employees will test the summer dress code by wearing clothing that suggests they were on the way to the beach or just got up in the morning and forgot to get dressed. They totally ignore the fact a professional image in the workplace is an important ongoing daily requirement.

Most organizations these days have adopted a "business casual" dress code in their workplace, but it is wise to remind employees each summer just what kind of dress is appropriate and what is not.

Typically, this is moderated somewhat by where an individual is located in their workplace. Frontline customer service type of employees, who meet and greet people all day long, certainly need to be more professionally dressed. On the other hand, those individuals working in a back room may need only to consider their impact on their fellow colleagues.

Frankly, with so many different dress styles for men and women, it’s hard to create an effective definition of summer dress without making a 20-page list of summer "dos and don’ts." To do so would be simply exhausting and a great waste of time. Being so specific in describing and requiring a certain dress could result in inadvertent discrimination based on whether an employee is male or female, as well. Who needs a human rights complaint to top off a great summer?

Therefore, a more powerful approach is to focus on the importance of dress and professionalism. Talk to employees about professionalism and how their choice of dress creates a powerful statement about who they are, how they feel about themselves and how they expect people to treat them. After all, everyone wants to be seen as a professional no matter what job they hold. This type of discussion also helps employees to focus more on personal self-regulation regarding their dress. If not, the employer is forced into a policing role.

In speaking to employees, it is helpful to assist them to understand how their own personal behaviour impacts the overall culture of the organization and how this is projected into the marketplace. Culture is the personality of an organization and it is made up of a set of the values, beliefs, and habits exhibited by all of its leaders and employees. Culture is very powerful in terms of sending messages to potential candidates as well as customers and colleagues.

Therefore, help your employees think about making their dress choices from the point of view of organizational culture as it pertains to customer service, worker safety, and interpersonal relationships. Instead of trying to make a list of "dos and don’ts," ask employees to pay attention to their dress choices. For instance, those so-called "flip-flops" worn by both men and women at home and at the beach are simply not suitable for one’s work.

Perhaps this is also the time to speak to employees about their "employee rights." For instance, every employee has the right to work in a safe environment. This means that they have the right to expect, for example, a work environment that is absent of smells to which they are allergic, but also a work environment free of colleague attires that make them uncomfortable and unsafe.

As well, more and more workplace dress issues are being challenged under human rights legislation.

This legislation says that every worker has the right to be treated equally and/or to have consideration for religious beliefs when applying the dress code.

For instance, recently we have seen challenges against women having to wear high heels in their workplace, both in Canada and the U.K. British Columbia recently passed legislation that employers must consider specific safety factors when choosing mandatory footwear codes.

The idea of a business-casual dress code has now been in place since the late ‘70s, so perhaps it is time to review your dress code policy. As mentioned, at one time employers did make long lists of what could be worn and what couldn’t, but in this day and age, it is a waste of time and probably outdated. However, there are indeed some serious issues that need to be re-examined.

Policies work best when there has been input and understanding from your employees. Therefore, create a small committee and review your current policy with the view to updating it. Investigate the human rights code with respect to your policy, as you may inadvertently be creating a problem. Revise and simplify the policy. Once completed, be sure to communicate any changes, as well as the rationale for the changes. Post the code where people will see it.

At the same time, review your dress code and progressive discipline policy with managers and remind them of the expectation to intervene with an inappropriate dress issue sooner than later. However, avoid taking a "policing" approach. Instead, coach the employee to understand why the dress situation is an issue.

Focus on the professionalism you require in your organization. Help the individual to self-reflect on how their dress is creating a poor image and how this may be having a negative impact on their daily relationships. Talk to the employee about the impact of professionalism on their long-term career.

Summer dress in the workplace has been an issue every summer since "casual business" attire became well-accepted. And, with so much variety of fashion, changing legislation and greater employee knowledge of their rights and obligations, the issue is much more complicated than ever. However, it all boils down to being proactive and focusing on workplace safety, customer service and maintaining positive workplace relationships.

So, if you haven’t reviewed your policies recently, now is the time.

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