Casual business attire is redefined in the summer — frequently to shocking results. But a company has to be careful how it addresses the employee who comes into work in a midriff and flip-flops.
“A male employee having a one-on-one consultation involving inappropriate dress with a female employee can easily spin into what is perceived as a harassing conversation,” said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a Norwalk, Conn., human resources outsourcing and consulting company.
That doesn’t mean a company should avoid a difficult conversation. In fact, confronting dress code rebels quickly is better than letting the problem grow.
“The issue that I see most commonly is an inconsistency in the enforcement of the policy that reaches a crescendo before they pick one sacrificial lamb,” Mr. Lewis said.
“You have a right as a business to essentially sort of randomly sit down and pass judgment … but the employee can ask where they can find the standards,” he said, which is why he says companies should codify their dress codes to get ahead of the issue.
He recommends that companies put dress code policies in their employee handbooks and update them frequently.
“Right at the point where you get your first 60-degree day is the reminder for an update to the policy or for a reminder and a reissuance of the policy,” Mr. Lewis said.
“Policies like these should be looked at annually. They could be easily out of date because fashion and styles change and attitudes subsequently change.”
New employees and summer interns should get a copy of the policy before their start date or at least on their first Monday and then meet with someone in the human resources department at the end of their first week to go over the handbook.
Companies without a written dress code usually do choose not to write one because they believe that people will be aware of their surroundings and will conform. Mr. Lewis said that’s a mistake.
“The reality is that the less they tell people, the more they are likely to be challenged,” he said.
In the last 10 years, office attire has gotten much less formal. On top of that, many companies relax the dress code further between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
For some employees, that’s an invitation to show up at work wearing an outfit better suited to a picnic.
Even businesses without a published dress code policy can discipline those employees — including sending them home to change — but companies must be consistent and and not arbitrary in identifying violations.
“One of the more unfortunate mistakes I see is that in the process of expressing concern, they imply that a person of a certain size shouldn’t be wearing tight clothes while others can,” Mr Lewis said.
He said it is essential that a delicate conversation about workplace attire happen behind closed doors with a human resource expert and should be specific, polite and professional.
The last thing an employer wants is to create a hostile work environment while explaining that tank tops, halter tops and shorts are too revealing.
Brian Hyslop: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1936.