Workzone: Size up the situation if addressing dress code

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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 They could be eas­ily out of date be­cause fash­ion and styles change and at­ti­tudes sub­se­quently change.”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: bhys­lop@post-ga­ or 412-263-1936.

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