Is business casual going too far in your department? How employees dress can reflect negatively on your organization, department and even you, as the manager. You can ensure that employees are making a positive impression by setting a few ground rules.
But how can you enforce those rules without spending too much time on your staff’s attire? Start by avoiding these traps when it comes to addressing dress code issues:
- Being too vague. Many organizations state their dress codes as “You are expected to dress professionally.” Unfortunately, what constitutes “professional dress” is subjective and debatable. Outside of business suits, there’s a lot of gray area. One of my employers had this as its dress code: “Men should wear a shirt and tie. Women should wear the equivalent.” Because women’s clothing options are so much more varied than men’s, I don’t think there is a direct parallel to a shirt and tie. Not surprisingly, the policy was interpreted very differently among the female employees.
- Using the wrong terminology. One company posted a notice about inappropriate summer wear that included the instruction “No rubber beach thongs.” It was referring to flip-flops, but many employees wondered who’d come to work in a bathing suit. The company also was too vague. Even without the problematic term “thongs,” the company might have chosen better wording. My immediate reaction to the rule: “Hmmm, does that mean that leather or other fancy flip-flops are OK?” If the company really meant to forbid only one type of flip-flop, then the wording is fine. I doubt that was its intention.
- Being condescending. Being too vague can cause confusion, but being too specific can make your employees feel belittled. A friend of mine—a teacher—almost walked out of a staff meeting where her principal spent over 30 minutes going over his expectations for dress code. He held up a Talbots catalog and said, “Ladies, for those of you that don’t know the meaning of ‘professional,’ I suggest that you take a look at Talbots. If those clothes are too expensive for you, see me in my office. We’ll try to find something fitting.” His inflection made his words even more insulting. My friend’s reaction: “If he wants to pick out my clothes for me, he can go ahead and pay for them too.” Obviously, you don’t want your employees to have that kind of angry reaction when you discuss policies.
Instead, follow these tips to be clear but respectful when addressing dress code policies and violations:
- Give examples. If your organization has a vague policy like “Dress professionally,” clarify with examples. Tell your staff something like “For example, don’t wear T-shirts, revealing clothing and sandals.” That gives employees an idea of what you expect, but isn’t as condescending as “No tube tops, no halter tops, no belly shirts, no tank tops, no T-shirts, no flip-flops, no sandals, no shorts …” and so on. Plus, when you give a long, specific list, that opens the door for employees to challenge the policy with anything you didn’t mention.
- Enforce the policy. Turning a blind eye to violations can cause employees to doubt your leadership and the policy’s importance. After all, if a rule isn’t worth enforcing, is it worth having in the first place? Enforce the dress code evenly for all employees, regardless of age or other factors.
- Talk privately with violators. Instead of wasting everyone’s time reiterating your expectations at staff meetings, meet one-on-one with those employees who dress inappropriately. Tell them specifically what aspects of their attire don’t meet the dress code and how to fix the problem.
- Emphasize the benefits. During the one-on-one meetings, stress the advantages of professional dress. Say something like, “Debra, you do good work. I want everyone to focus on your work, but instead I’ve heard customers talking about the length of your skirt.”
What tips do you have for dealing with dress code issues?