What Not to Wear: Is Your Employee Dress Code Stuck in the Past?

Creating a company dress code isn’t easy, and ensuring that policies are evenly enforced can be challenging. Here are tips to help you modernize your policies.

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From a very young age, we are exposed to what society deems appropriate and inappropriate to wear. Schools have a long-standing history of providing dress codes for students, and they and their parents often scrutinize these policies.

Organizations have also adopted employee dress codes to define what works for the company. Creating a dress code company policy can be helpful, but policies need to be fairly enforced. As you consider what your employee dress code will look like, let’s dive into the history of these policies and tips for setting them.

A brief history of the employee dress code

The book “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History” explains how fashion standards have impacted work. For a while, the standard of dress for men at work was suits. As more women entered the workforce, they began to utilize some aspects of the suit to create their own acceptable workplace attire.

Technology companies shook up what was considered appropriate at work. Some founders like Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg are known for hoodies and plain t-shirts. However, sites like Bustle have noted that women aren’t typically afforded the same opportunity to dress down. Still, there are specific workplaces that heavily rely on dress codes even today, such as hospitals, stores, and certain factories.

As remote work became more prevalent in 2020, dress codes have made a significant shift. Often employees are only dressing professionally from the waist up, since their bottom half isn’t on camera.

Organizations have a long way to go to ensure that employees from minority groups aren’t being overly criticized based on dress choices.

More recently, office dress codes have come under fire. Legislation like The CROWN Act has given us useful statistics on how we condemn wearing natural hair in the workplace. According to data collected by Dove Research,  Black women are:

  • 30% more likely to be told about the company’s workplace appearance policy.
  • 80% more likely to agree that they need to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.
  • 5x more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair.

Organizations have a long way to go to ensure that employees from minority groups aren’t being overly criticized based on dress choices.

How to define a modern dress code for your company

Creating a dress code can feel overwhelming. With so many definitions of “professional,” how do you sum up your organization’s thoughts on the matter? Here are a few tips that can help you define a dress code in companies.

1. Consider your organization when setting a dress code

There are specific organizations where having a dress code makes sense. Hospitals, for example, need a dress code. Dress codes set doctors apart from nurses, clerical staff, patients, and visitors. Without a dress code, it would be challenging to understand who is in charge and where help is located. If your organization needs clothing to denote employees because you work in a public building, a dress code probably makes sense as well.

2. Set dress code standards for specific parts of the workday

You don’t have to regulate your employees’ clothes all the time. For example, you may decide to limit how people dress at a trade show or when taking an in-person sales call. Creating limits to your company’s dress code can help with employee motivation. Most employees will understand that they can’t wear ripped jeans to a face-to-face client meeting.

3. Offer unique variations to help employees stand out

One simple way to improve your dress code is by offering variations to your dress code. For example, instead of allowing an employee to wear khaki slacks only, you can include other colors like black, grey, and white. A simple change to the number of colors you allow can give employees more autonomy. Who doesn’t want more control over what they wear?

4. Think about protected classes when defining your company’s dress code

There’s a reason Black women feel that they need to change their natural hair to fit in at work. Some organizations utilize words that seem harmless but can impact protected classes. Unfortunately, protected classes are at the whim of who decides to interpret and uphold an employee dress code. Words like “clean” are in the eye of the beholder. Natural hair may feel clean to someone in a protected group, and they could still get in trouble.

5. Get employees and investors involved in dress code decision making

When defining the company dress code, it’s crucial to get employees involved.

A study conducted by Randstad shared that employees want dress codes that are business casual (26%), casual (33%), or nonexistent (20%). The study also concluded that many workers don’t feel ripped jeans (73%) or leggings (56%) are work appropriate.

Given the ability to share their thoughts, your employees will likely have similar beliefs about what is work appropriate. Opening up the conversation to employees will give you new insights into how staff members approach these limitations. After all, your team members will be held to these standards. They should have a choice in what’s practical for them.

A study conducted by Randstad shared that employees want dress codes that are business casual (26%), casual (33%), or nonexistent (20%).

6. Create an anti-dress code

If you want to stand out from the competition, showing support for your employees can help. If you are looking for benefits to offer your team, genuine trust and support of your team members is a must.

What would an anti-dress code look like in action?

Create a statement in your employee handbook about trust and support for your team. Encourage employees to use their best judgment on what looks professional, knowing that their definition might differ from yours. Just because someone in HR wouldn’t wear something doesn’t mean it lacks professionalism.

It’s also important to add a clause for how you will step in case of customer or coworker complaints. A customer might not like an employee wearing a head covering, but that doesn’t mean an employee is out of line. Your anti-dress code should be there to protect employees who might dress differently than you.

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Final thoughts on updating your company dress code

Defining a company dress code can be difficult for HR. Unfortunately, dress codes can become discriminatory if they aren’t properly enforced. Modernizing your company’s dress code starts with being a strategic thinker. Some companies can afford a relaxed dress code, while others can’t. By involving your team members, you can create a company dress code that makes sense for your organization.

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