Learn the Ins and Outs of Workplace Dress Codes

Today's dress codes range from Gucci to garters. Are there any limits?

If you order a Buckin’ Bronco Macchiato at Cowgirls Espresso in Tukwila, Washington, you’ll be greeted by a waitress in a short, sheer, baby-doll negligee and coordinated
panties. Day-of-the-week theme outfits ranging from racy lingerie to “fetish” ensembles are the dress code at Moka Girls Espresso in nearby Auburn.

While a provocative dress code might fly for these trendy businesses in the Northwest, it would never work for a successful law firm; a business needs to gauge what attire will be right for the audience and the circumstance. This all hinges on the norms of the company’s industry, region, department, and function.

The idea of a having a company dress code appeals to Shannon Lyons, who works at a major law firm in downtown Chicago. “I don’t mind having a uniform policy,” she said. “It’s nice knowing what you are going to wear when you get up in the morning and everyone has to dress the same. I think it’s important especially when dealing with clients to be presentable and nicely dressed.” And with many of today’s employees pushing the limits of business casual, many employers are rethinking their company dress code policies and returning to a more conservative approach. Lyons added that her firm recently sent a reminder memo to employees stating that their dress standard if not meeting with clients is “business casual,” not “beach casual.”

Often, a good dress code can arise out of a business’s very nature. For instance, Melissa Paxton, who owns a small gardening business in Durango, Colorado, doesn’t have a written dress code per se, but she does encourage co-workers to wear closed-toe shoes, pants with multiple pockets, a sun shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat. Her employees quickly followed her practical example and they now have a sort of company uniform by default.

With their upscale bras and lacy panties, you might think that Victoria’s Secret would be receptive to their associates wearing short skirts and tight, revealing
clothing. However, their “Dress for Success” employee manual instead emphasizes “a classic look that readily identifies any associate with the highest standards of Victoria’s Secret.” In fact, all associates are required to wear 95 percent black, a color that represents sophistication and power.

Creating a standard of dress and grooming isn’t easy. In order for a dress code to be legally enforceable, it can’t restrict gender equality or religious freedom, and in order to be effective, employees have to be able to understand and follow it.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as long as they do not hinder or discriminate against a person’s race, color, religion, age, national origin, or gender. An employer may require all workers to follow a uniform dress code even if the dress code conflicts with some workers’ ethnic beliefs or practices. However, if the dress code conflicts with religious practices, the employer must modify the dress code unless doing so would result in undue hardship.

For example, a 2004 lawsuit filed by the EEOC against Blockbuster Video alleged that
the video-rental company failed to accommodate the religious beliefs of their employee, violating Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. The lawsuit stemmed from the company refusing to let a Jewish employee wear a yarmulke, a skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys, since the company had a policy against letting workers wear headgear. Blockbuster settled for $50,000 and was required to modify its dress code policy.

As a guideline, businesses can consider the following tips when implementing workplace dress code policies: make sure your dress code is communicated to employees through a poster, employee newsletter, or memo and add it to the training manual; tell employees why the requirements are in place, whether it’s for reasons of safety, health, or image; take the employee’s duties into consideration when creating the code; if an employee breaks the code, be sure he or she understands what the problem is and how it can be fixed; consider making accommodations when necessary, like when a disability or religious belief requires some flexibility.

Of course, if you want the employees of your auto body shop to wear spandex, today’s bizarre dress codes allow for this … and so much more.

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