July 31, 2019

How to navigate workplace dress codes for the modern workforce

Workplace dress codes can be beneficial for both employees and businesses; however, if executed improperly, they can lead to unintentional discrimination. Here are seven tips companies should consider when introducing a new dress code or updating current policies.

In a time when even the financial industry is loosening up dress codes, the idea of instilling rules and boundaries around what’s worn in the workplace seems like an uphill battle.

After all, younger generations entering the workforce commonly prefer a more relaxed work environment. There’s also the tech industry’s influence –  JPMorgan sent out a memo about relaxing their dress code after CEO Jamie Dimon’s visit to Silicon Valley, and Goldman Sachs more recently announced it was making its dress code “more flexible.”

Fashion is a form of self-expression and creativity in both our personal and professional lives. While the spectrum of workplace attire has broadened in today’s world of work, it can be tricky and confusing for both employees and their employers to navigate.

In fact, 2018 research from staffing firm OfficeTeam found that 86% of workers and 80% of managers feel that clothing choices impact a person’s chances of being promoted.

That’s why a dress code – whether a formal policy or suggested set of guidelines – can help workers find the balance between individualism and professionalism.

Similar to how “team colors” tend to unite a group of individuals in sports, a carefully crafted dress code policy may accomplish the same thing in the professional space. It should balance employees’ abilities to express their unique styles and interests, while reflecting and supporting your company culture, values, and brand. However, an unclear or improperly communicated dress code policy can leave employees feeling alienated or confused.

Here are some tips for companies creating and implementing a dress code for today’s modern workforce.

  1. Determine the reason: As lawyer Ashley Savinov says in The Globe and Mail, companies should have a legitimate business reason (e.g. workplace health and safety, company image, etc.) to implement a dress code policy. “’Reasonable’ varies depending on the nature of the workplace, which is different for every situation,” she says, adding, “If an employer imposes something rigid without a valid reason, there’s likely to be friction, which can impact morale and overall productivity.”
  2. Decide on the degree of formality: Whether it’s casual, business casual, or formal wear, employees must know the specificities of a dress code. Even an entirely casual work environment has its limits. A workplace may be casual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sweatpants are acceptable, for instance.
  3. Reflect working conditions: Employers must ensure work can be done safely in either the uniforms provided or the set clothing guidelines. For example, clothing guidelines for different roles will have to be set to ensure workers feel safe. Acceptable attire for warehouse workers, for example, may be different than that of office workers.
  4. Provide options: In the retail and hospitality industries – or any other business where uniforms are commonly provided for staff – there must be measures put in place to avoid discrimination of any kind. For example, ensuring that uniforms come in all sizes so larger or smaller than average employees feel confident and comfortable in their work attire.
  5. Involve employees in the policy-making process: Allowing employees to contribute suggestions and feedback will help them feel part of the decision-making process. Employees will be more likely to get on board with changes to a policy when they feel they have a say.  
  6. Communicate frequently: Clearly define expectations of the dress code to avoid any confusion. Employers can leverage technology to communicate the new or updated policy to all departments and teams within the organization.
  7. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach: No two organizations are the same, and it follows that this applies to their policies and programs as well. A dress code shouldn’t be a barrier to keeping employees engaged or getting work done. It’s important through the process to prioritize creating a culture of trust and inclusion, where employees feel confident and secure.

Avoiding dress code discrimination in the workplace

Some employers may need to give special consideration to certain laws relating to discrimination. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) employers with at least 15 employees are prohibited from discriminating against workers based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Dress codes that are discriminatory are those that impose stricter requirements on one group of employees than on others and can lead to damaging lawsuits. Here a few types of discrimination employers must avoid when creating and implementing a dress code policy:

  • Gender-based discrimination

Employers should not single out a certain gender or group of people. A stark example of a discriminatory dress code is requiring female employees to wear heels. According to the Human Rights Campaign, employers can legally implement gender-specific dress codes if they are not arbitrarily enforced and do not favor or affect one gender over another. Employers must also allow transgender employees to dress in accordance with their full-time gender presentation.

  • Workers with disabilities

Employers should establish a dress code that applies to all employees and must have reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities.

  • Racial and religious discrimination

According to the EEOC, in most instances, “employers are required by federal law to make exceptions to their usual rules to permit applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices.” Unless a worker’s religious garb is harmful to other employees or to the company, employers should reasonably accommodate religious beliefs or practices.  

Many of these discriminatory scenarios can be avoided by having a clearly defined dress code that is fair and consistent across the organization. Taking this approach can help to mitigate risk, confusion, and adverse effects on staff morale while cultivating inclusion and acceptance within a diverse workforce.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon or construed as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should review with your legal advisors how the laws identified in this post may apply to your specific situation.

Team Ceridian

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