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Workplace Dress Codes

July 6, 2017


Does your employer tell you what to wear for work? High school dress codes and uniforms are often in the news but many employers have long wrestled with the dress code issue. In some workplaces, what to wear and especially what not to wear and when can be a hotly debated issue that potentially raises questions of workplace culture, status and discrimination. 


The guiding principles typically have to do with image to clients and stakeholders, professionalism within the work environment and safety. However, dress codes also say a lot about workplace culture most notably how customer focused, professional, relaxed or traditional it is. 

Dress codes, whether explicit or unwritten, are as varied as workplaces are and I believe the nature of the workplace forms the starting point for an employer in determining a dress code. Law firms are different from IT firms, manufacturing is different from retail and back office work is different from client facing work. 

I firmly believe that setting some type of employer expectation is appropriate in all settings. Letting employees figure it out by checking out what colleagues do and don’t wear and what the boss wears isn’t good enough no matter how open or flexible an employer wants to be.


Leaving it to the judgment and sensibility of supervisors without stated guidelines is inappropriate and a breeding ground for inconsistency.
In safety sensitive environments, things typically get spelled out clearly as well they should. I am troubled by the number of small and medium sized enterprises I have witnessed that take an inconsistent and sometimes inconsequential attitude about wearing personal protective equipment. Breaking the rules around the wearing of hard hats, steel toed boots, glasses, highly visible clothing and loose-fitting clothing around equipment should have grave consequences. Managers and supervisors must intervene assertively and their disciplinary options for dealing with breaches must be spelled out and adhered to vigorously. 

Managers in all environments are well advised to be consistent in how they address dress code violations whether the guidelines have to do with length of skirts, type of footwear, number of buttons that can be left open on a shirt for both men and women, number of days between shaving for men and whether your choice of attire fell into the approved pallet of colors. Dress codes need to address a lengthy list of items but so long as it is reasonable, job related, not discriminatory and makes sense for the employer and their circumstances, so be it.
It is a commendable practice for employers to consult staff when setting up guidelines and revisit them periodically to keep up with the times. I have seen numerous examples of employers who displayed appropriate sensitivity and flexibility to issues like the wearing of religious symbols by working these things out within and outside of policy. The cornerstone of their approach was promoting tolerance and dialogue with staff.


How employers deal with tattoos and piercings is all over the map from no guidelines whatsoever to insisting on covering up tats or removing piercing adornments. Again, being appropriate to the circumstances and a consistent application of policy is key.
Uniforms are a time-honored tradition in many workplaces, with various requirements for wearing them and who pays for them. For the employer, it simplifies matters of ensuring workers present a certain image to clients and it can foster a sense of team.  Such a tribal feeling of togetherness does have benefits of cohesion and some would argue productivity. Uniforms also denote status is some regards as does the way dress codes evolve in a workplace. 


For men in some workplaces, who wears shirtsleeves, versus shirtsleeves with a tie versus the former with a blazer can say a lot about where you sit on the organizational chart. Such status defining practices are rarely spelled out but evolve organically over time.
Some will say having one’s employer regulate wardrobe limits self-expression, that the expense incurred in complying to certain dress codes are not fair and such approaches are antiquated and impersonal. Casual Fridays and a more relaxed summer dress code are appreciated by many yet for some that still isn’t enough. 

I believe all employers should state dress code expectations and some employers should redefine expectations to be more in keeping with contemporary practices of tolerance and flexibility. All employers will do well to consider the nature of the work environment, the workplace culture they are trying to create and safety considerations. 

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