How to Set a Dress Code for Your Business

Does your business have a dress code? If you’re wearing pajamas while reading this in your home office, probably not. But if you do business outside of the house — and especially if you have employees — workplace attire is a potentially thorny issue, perhaps more so now than ever.

I’ve worked in all kinds of environments, from the tragically casual start-up to the buttoned-up Fortune 500 firm. (And yes, on occasion, in pajamas in my home office.) If you ask me, professional attire should be a matter of common sense. But it seems everyone has at least one example of a coworker trampling common sense like herd of elephants chased by lions.

So how should small businesses handle workplace appearance? I punted the question over to the Evil HR Lady, Suzanne Lucas, a 10-year-veteran of corporate human resources and founder of Carnival of HR: When does a business need a dress code?

“Once you hire someone other than your spouse, it’s time to have a dress code,” she says. “I know that seems ridiculous, but there are too many people out there who are just clueless.”

The dress code should be in writing — otherwise it’s too difficult to enforce, says Lucas, whose work has been used in HR certification and management training courses across the country. She recommends these sample dress codes as models for writing your own. And once the policy is in place? Enforce it “consistently and every time there is a violation. Companies get in trouble when they let the thin, gorgeous woman wear a micro-mini skirt, but tell the overweight woman to keep her skirts down to her knees. If your dress code is reasonable to begin with, enforcing it is not generally a problem.”

You don’t need separate guidelines for men and women, according to Lucas, and problems on this front are unlikely to arise. You can take a gender-specific approach, though. “Just be careful that if you do separate it out by gender that there are equivalent requirements,” she says.

A dress code isn’t limited to clothing, either. Hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, jewelry, and other accessories are factors in today’s environment.

“They are a part of appearance, which is what dress codes are all about,” Lucas says. “Of course, you shouldn’t be ridiculous about it. Before you go banning something, think about if it really affects your business.”

In writing a dress code, common sense does count, as should industry and job function: Appearance might not matter the same in a landscaping business as in an accounting firm.

Put another way, Lucas asks: “If your employees never come face to face with a customer, does it really matter how many tattoos they have?”

About Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey is a regular contributor here, at InformationWeek and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @kevinrcasey.
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7 comments
AgriturismoX
AgriturismoX

Establishing a dress code is absolutely something that the HR department should set a policy for. Setting expectations for employees allows everyone to know what is expected of them. Additionally, depending on the nature and size of the business (as this will also dictate whether or not they have an HR department) this will also have an impact on employee motivation. As Evil HR Lady noted in her interview, the industry involved should be taken into account. Dressing formally might help with employee motivation in an accounting setting, but if your employee only needs to look nice for their computer or telephone, then is there really a point? Why not let people be themselves, at least in the way they dress.

rayhackney2051
rayhackney2051

What dress standard do you expect if you were walking into the office of a funeral home? Dress Casual or Formal Dress?

qbteachmt
qbteachmt

"Banning flip-flops should be a general practice."Really, does footwear affect the brain?I teach in flip-flops, and it paid off big time recently when teaching a class of displaced factory workers. As I pointed out to them, I also had been laid off years ago from a factory environment where we wore respirators, steel-toed shoes, hard hats and safety goggles. I swore never again to work in that type of environment and I pledged to myself to wear flip-flops whenever possible. It helped them laugh about their anxiety of their transition from running manufacturing equipment to learning desktop computing. And I got no complaints about my footwear.

Guillermo
Guillermo

Nice touch by the author on a very real issue. I fully agree with David's comment.The clip from the Office scared me!

Michael
Michael

Banning flip-flops should be a general practice.

David
David

Very interesting topic. I work from home but I try not to get too comfortable with the PJs. I like to be in the mindset of doing business professionally and my 'dress' affects how I perform believe it or not. I love comfort clothes and am guilty of the PJs too on occasion when at home. If I am out in public working (cafe, etc.) I am dressed up, usually business casual...I personally would lean more toward dressing up than dressing down though.

AMJ
AMJ

“Of course, you shouldn’t be ridiculous about it. Before you go banning something, think about if it really affects your business.”Amen! I used to work in a software company where developers were never even in the same building as customer representatives, yet we had a ten-page dress code, complete with photos from 1980s JC Penney catalogs to show us the "dos" and "don'ts". I was lucky enough to be hired a few months after they conceded that we could wear dress shirts and slacks instead of full suits. After four years or so, they finally allowed women to wear open-heeled or open-toed shoes -- but both couldn't be open at once! One could sort of understand that they were trying to address every possible situation but it really came across as over-the-top and disrespectful of the employees.