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Create a Dress Code that Fits Your Company

Create a Dress Code that Fits Your Company

By: John Rossheim

While the workplace trend to more casual dress continues, today’s dress code is nowhere near that simple. One key consideration: Millennials -- now 16 to 34 years old and all of legal age to work -- make different assumptions than their elders about what to wear at work. And while personal style is in, lack of consideration is out. 

Finally, diversity and its expression – from gender fluidity to religious observance – is a hot topic across American society – particularly your summer dress code policy.

With these crosscurrents in mind, here are 11 tips from managers, business owners and a staffing executive for how to create a dress code that conveys your company culture while also making your customers relax and feel respected.

Define dress terminology by example. To your company, business casual means Dockers are OK. To another company, business casual requires dress slacks. So define your terms of dress, especially for workers who only recently came of age. 

Millennials need definitions of what the dress code means,” says Brandi Britton, a district president for staffing firm OfficeTeam. “Their ‘professional’ tends to look more like what we mean by ‘business casual.’ ”

Spell out your dress code in gender-neutral terms. If your work dress code gets very specific, make reference to articles of clothing, such as shirts and pants, not to gender, advises John Conway, an attorney who represents workers and retirees in labor matters.

Discretion need not rule out style. If management has a good relationship with staff, it’s possible to rule out the provocative without mandating conformity. 

“We had an incident a couple of years ago with a therapist who wore hot pants,” says Bob Najjar, co-director of the Psychotherapy Center for Gender and Sexuality at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City. “We couldn’t allow that, but we do let people express themselves.”

Dress up for big clients who might expect it. Whichever way the sartorial winds blow in the American workplace, one guidepost is constant: Meetings with big clients often require an attire upgrade. “When a major multinational corporation comes in, we dress up a bit,” says Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations in New York City. “I put on a sport coat and nice pants.”

But don’t make clients uncomfortable by overdressing. Some old-school managers think you can never go wrong by suiting up; they’re wrong. “We don’t want a client company to feel like the FBI has raided them,” says Britton.

Even for virtual meetings, dress with intention. Yes, videoconferences have become ubiquitous. “A client could have an office across the street and still wants to FaceTime,” says Laermer. But it isn’t always OK to “come as you are” for a Skype meeting. It’s safer to wear at least a nice blouse or a button-down shirt – even if you’re wearing denim where the camera can’t see.

Give kind guidance to less-experienced workers. While the dress code may seem self-explanatory to old hands, the subtleties of dressing up or down at times will elude newer or younger workers. “Sometimes when a client comes in, a junior executive wears a suit and tie, and that cracks me up,” says Laermer. A little advice given in private and in advance may be more demonstrative of a culture of respect regardless of seniority.

Ask employees to consider their coworkers. Client sensibilities shouldn’t be the only driver of your dress code. “Last year one of our execs came in wearing a T-shirt, and I had to say no, because it angered other employees,” says Laermer.

Don’t be arbitrary. Your company might get in legal trouble if you say you have no dress code – as many smaller enterprises do these days – and then nix what an individual chooses to wear on a given day. 

“Employers must give advance notice of the dress code, and enforcement cannot be ad hoc,” says Conway. “If there’s a disagreement, it’s best to work through it with a deliberative process.” Keep in mind that the manner in which you resolve problems will reflect heavily on the culture of your company.

Make accommodations for legitimate exceptions. “The number one problem in establishing uniform dress code is inflexibility that would allow for accommodation of certain practices such as religious beliefs,” says Conway. 

In EEOC vs. Abercrombie, the Supreme Court ruled against the retailer for declining to hire a woman who wore a head scarf – even given the clothing chain’s rule against head coverings and the fact that the woman did not disclose in her interview that she wore a hijab for religious reasons.

Watch your legal exposure. When in doubt, seek legal counsel on your dress code and its enforcement. “We sent a guy to work at the front desk of a client,” says Britton. “He wore a single, long earring, and the client didn’t like it. But the legal advice was that they had to allow it.”