If a Workplace Dress Code is Necessary, Proceed with Caution

Grin and wear it


Although I’ve never followed fashion, I’ve certainly had a front seat to the phenomenal social transition from formal office attire to casual dress. No longer is the three-piece uniform for men or the pencil skirt and matching jacket for women the standard business uniform. 


When did this cultural change begin? Research quickly reveals the fashion trend started in the mid-1960s with a marketing ploy to sell more of those Hawaiian shirts for men on what was called, "Aloha Friday."

Eventually, this led to the drive for "casual Fridays" in the workplace and has now revolutionized the concept of fashion in the workplace. Today, you’ll recognize in some cases, casual Friday has turned into "everyday" casual.




This so-called revolution was so quick and dramatic people not only didn’t know what to wear, managers didn’t know what to accept as proper attire. All of a sudden those traditional social messages regarding clothing — the ones that signalled social class and/or occupation — were thrown out and transposed by comfort and functionality.

Women in particular were thrown off balance as their wardrobe was suddenly "out of sorts." Not only that, the fashion manufacturers hadn’t caught up with new, informal styles.

Then as can be expected, when office-fashion standards lacked effective definition, individuals turned to what they personally considered casual clothes. Of course, this resulted in a variety of choices ranging from a more professional style outfit to men and women’s short shorts with rough holes all around and cut-out beach shirts of all colours, sizes and messages. These were accompanied by flip-flops as well as other comfortable beach footwear.

The phenomenon literally turned the work fashion rules upside down. The question became, "Just what fashionable attire was suitable for work?" This, in turn, led to a flurry of management directives to quickly develop a dress code. And this led to a good deal of controversy about fashion rules. Employee response ranged from, "Who are you to tell me what to wear?" to a concern about the lack of consultation and/or whether or not the newly formed dress policies were reasonable and fair.

For instance, I distinctly recall directives that banned open-toe shoes for women. Excuse me? Were managers not aware 90 per cent of women’s summer shoes are open-toe style as are all women’s professional-looking sandals?

However, no matter how much fashion styles have changed, the fact that workplace fashion projects an image remains the same. Therefore, fashion must also be considered a public relations strategy. You need to ask yourself, just what kind of image are your employees projecting to clients, vendors, stakeholders, teammates? The same applies to individuals. In other words, think carefully.

Where does management start with respect to developing an acceptable dress code? What type of dress code will effectively reflect your company’s culture and bolster employees’ pride and confidence? What manner of dress will be pleasing to a customer’s eye and promote the professional image you desire?

At the same time, one of the biggest barriers to developing a dress code is the time it takes and the people who need to be involved to make it work. However, organizations spend countless hours and dollars to secure their corporate brand, so simply consider your dress code as an investment in your public relations strategy. The following guidelines will help bring about success.


Employee input — No matter what, workplace fashion creates a powerful statement about who employees are, how they feel about themselves and how they expect people to treat them. And, whereas there is such a variety of opinions regarding fashion, and since no one wants to be a fashion police, it is wise to create an employee committee in order to develop a draft policy. Be sure to have mixed membership so all views are represented. This helps to create employee acceptance and adherence to the policy.

Define your sector — Keep in mind how your employees dress will be one of the first things clients notice when encountering your staff. Therefore, use the nature of your business sector as a guide to your fashion standards. Determine a dress attire that is appropriate. For instance, dress for a financial services business would be different than a local garage and/or convenience store.

Define the scope — Workplace policies have moved beyond simply dress and fashion and include personal hygiene, perfumes and scents, tattoos, piercings and other body art as well as the accommodations for religious beliefs. Include what is important to your workplace, but be prepared to adapt the policy when change is needed.

Assess public/private contact — If your employees deal with the public, develop specific standards that create a professional look. This doesn’t have to be complicated. For instance, many organizations have chosen to provide a professional gender-neutral shirt with company colours and logos. This makes dressing easier and does not provide hardships to either gender of worker.

Safety issues — Organizations with safety issues need not worry about how employees look but instead must focus on employee safety. These also need to meet the legislative standards in your work environment.

Legal issues — Take time to review the legal issues related to your industry and to your local human rights legislation. For instance, we’ve just experienced a highly public furor over the sexualized marketing strategy of forcing women to wear short skirts and skimpy tops. Women and the public see this as no longer acceptable.

Employer rights — Each policy must remind employees of the employer’s right to set standards for dress at work. However, the policies must be justified, legal and implemented in a fair manner. As well, the policy must spell out what will happen should an employee not meet the standards set out in the policy.

Finally, keep in mind that whereas a dress code has the dual purpose of comfort for employees and the public image for the organization, it must be completed in a careful and thoughtful manner.

Believe me, there are a good deal more landmines than you might think. Take care.

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