Offices are getting more casual. The CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world wear jeans and t-shirts – black if you were Steve Jobs or grey if you’re Mark Zuckerberg. Even the most conservative industries like banking are loosening up and allowing their employees to ditch the tie and the suit.
Most companies don’t have a formal dress code for many reasons: they want to attract top candidates in a competitive job market. The millennial cohort, the biggest group of workers, may 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). Finally, companies may think that no dress code allows employees to be creative with their dress, which may translate to job creativity and productivity.
Companies may think that no formal dress code frees employees, but it can cause confusion instead. We not-so-secretly wonder what to wear to work. When you Google “What is business casual?” you get 48 million results. Workers interpret business casual or casual in many different ways. One person may show up in jeans, a collared shirt and a jacket, while another may decide casual is sweatpants and a clean t-shirt.
A dress code isn’t about policing what your employees wear. These days, they cover more than just clothing, says Glenn Nishimura, the principal & chief people strategist at Nishimura Consulting.
“The definition of dress codes has expanded beyond simply clothing, and often includes areas such as jewelry and perfume or cologne. Many companies who are considering the implementation of a dress code have been put in that situation because their employees have not demonstrated the common sense they were expecting in the choice of their attire.”
Remember Doctor Matt Taylor of the Rosetta mission and his controversial shirt? His shirt dominated the conversation instead of the scientific achievement of the mission, and made a lot of people very angry. Companies that don’t have a clear dress code policy can have a harder time deciding what is offensive and inappropriate to various employees and find it difficult to take action against the issue. A clear, written dress code can avoid offense.
Sometimes it’s a matter of safety in the workplace. We all know about steel-toed boots and hardhats on construction sites, but what about earrings at the vet? “One of my clients is a veterinary hospital, and we introduced a dress code a number of years ago which prohibits hoop earrings or piercings,” says Nishimura. “You only have to picture an animal getting their nails caught in them to understand why this is a really good idea.”
If you’re thinking of introducing a dress code, says Nishimura, the best way is to involve your employees. He suggests discussing the issues with them and expressing your thoughts on why a dress code is necessary.
“Examine the pros and cons with them, and make them feel part of the solution. Oftentimes, policies such as dress codes are dropped on everyone without notice, which can lead to employees feeling undervalued and disrespected. This type of sentiment does not bode well for the dress code gaining traction, and may even lead to some employees going so far as to deliberately resist it, and speak up against it.” Involving employees in the process leads to buy in for the dress code and a better chance that people will abide by it.
Consultation with your employees can give you a solid outline of what they, and you, deem to be appropriate clothing and hygiene for your company. Be concise and have definitive answers to questions like, “Can I wear sweatpants to the office?”, “Is the office a scent-free environment?” or “Piercings in the office, yes, no or how many?” This is also the opportunity to define whether the dress code changes when employees are client-facing.
As mentioned before, dress codes aren’t meant to police what employees wear and it should not enforce a particular look on any sex or gender. This includes forcing female employees to wear heels or telling them to wear makeup because it’s better for business. It could also mean letting men wear dress shorts to work when it’s hot.
The same applies to religious and cultural clothing. Some cultures and religions require people to dress in a particular manner like turbans, yarmulkes, head wraps, dreadlocks for practicing Rastafarians or headscarves. Unless their dress is harmful to other employees or to the company, the company should reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs or practices.
Many of these situations can be avoided by having a clearly defined dress code that involves everyone in the process. Not only does it eliminate potential lawsuits, confusion of what to wear and what is or isn’t appropriate, it also fosters inclusion and acceptance within a diverse workforce.