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What Is a Dress Code?
A dress code is a formal statement of a company’s expectations for how employees should dress while working or representing the company. How you write and uphold your company’s dress code should reflect your business’s unique culture.
The Importance of a Dress Code for the Workplace
How your employees dress sets the tone for how other employees and your clients view the company. A dress code can both reflect and help create the culture of the organization in the following ways.
- Professionalism. The dress code is an immediately identifiable aspect of a company culture. It can highlight the type of work that is being done (white collar vs blue collar) and the level of individual expression that a company is okay with. A casual look does not convey the same thing that a formal business suit does. In addition, if employees feel like they are looking good, the confidence boost can increase performance.
- Reputation and credibility. Employees represent your company, and how they dress impacts how others view the company as well as the individual. People have a tendency to judge credibility based on individual appearance. Someone who presents themselves in a clean, professional way may be taken as a more legitimate source of information than someone who doesn’t.
- Uniformity. Having a dress code, even if it is not expressly a uniform, can create a sense of consistency across the organization, helping employees feel connected and part of a team.
- Personnel relations. Creating guidelines for how individuals should dress in the workplace can mitigate some social biases stemming from the brand or style of their clothing, grooming techniques, or how well-kept someone appears.
Does Every Organization Need a Dress Code?
Not all organizations need a dress code, but it is recommended. Evaluate why you are considering one in the first place. Is it out of need (like requiring boots for safety) or do you want to create a more consistent experience for your consumers with a uniform? Or, if you want an atmosphere that feels professional and demonstrates that to both internal and external stakeholders, you would adopt business casual or professional dress.
It’s possible that a formal policy isn’t right for your business, but something simple that states clearly what the organization’s objectives are, how the dress code influences that, and what items employees are being asked not to wear (open-toed shoes, clothing that exposes the abdomen, etc.) could set some expectations for your employees.
Common Types of Workplace Dress Codes
While your dress code should reflect the values and culture of your organization, there are five common workplace dress codes that are universally recognized.
Sometimes also called boardroom attire, this is the most formal level of business attire.
- This is a tailored one-, two-, or three-button suit in a solid, neutral color, like brown, black, gray, or navy. Skirts should be no more than two finger-widths above the knee, worn over tights in a dark color.
- Ties and other accessories should be both modest in color and style: bold, solid colors, or patterned, toned-down neutrals. No bright or bold patterns or novelty ties. Jewelry should be understated, such as a wedding ring, stud earrings, etc.
- White, collared, button-up shirts.
- Shoes should be closed-toe oxfords or heels in brown or black, not loafers.
- Hair should be well-groomed.
- Nails should be kept short, clean, and buffed. If painted, they should be clear or nude in color.
Business professional is a toned-down version of business formal that allows a bit more flexibility and individual expression without compromising a traditional, conservative appearance. It requires:
- A one- or two-button suit or skirt, top, and coat in a conservative color, such as black, brown, gray, or navy. Some patterns, such as a conservative stripe or check, are acceptable. Skirts should never be more than two finger-widths above the knee.
- Dark or nude-colored hosiery.
- Conservative ties and accessories, like watches, cufflinks, and more noticeable jewelry. Some colors and patterns are acceptable forties, but no novelty ties.
- Shirts should be collared button-ups. Colors are acceptable as long as they are fairly conservative. Bold, solid colors are a safe choice.
- Shoes should be conservative oxfords or polished loafers in black or brown. Closed-toe pumps in a neutral color such as black or brown are also acceptable.
- Hair and nails should be well-groomed.
Business casual is possibly the most common dress code in the U.S. It allows for more flexibility and can look different for different organizations. If you choose business casual, it’s important to determine what is important to your organization and how conservative or traditional you want to keep it. This style creates an opportunity for more expression in colors and patterns while maintaining a professional appearance.
- Colored, collared button-ups in any color are acceptable, including conservative patterns such as checks or stripes worn with or without a tie.
- Ties should still be conservative, in patterns like dots, stripes, or checks. Most colors are acceptable.
- Pullovers and sweaters can be worn either alone or over a collared shirt. Sweaters should be solid, striped, or conservatively patterned. Primary or solid traditional colors are best.
- Colored shirts and blouses as opposed to mandatory button-ups.
- Nice slacks, khakis, or skirts in neutral colors, worn with or without a blazer or cardigan.
- Casual accessories and larger jewelry.
- Shoes should be closed-toe flats, heels, oxfords, loafers, or another smart choice in a neutral color. No sneakers.
- Hair and nails should be well-groomed. If nails are painted, be considerate of color.
A casual dress code is the most flexible option for workplaces. However, it’s important to consider how casual is too casual. How your employees dress represents your company as well as how internal employees see each other. A casual dress code may be the best fit for your organization, but it’s important to clearly express what is acceptable or not for your organization.
- Casual pants, slacks, or skirts (no shorter than two finger widths above the knee), but never jeans, unless explicitly stated. If jeans are permitted, medium- to dark-wash, clean-cut only. Jeans with a “destroyed” look should be avoided.
- Well-fitting tops like polos, blouses, sweaters, and pullovers, but nothing that is tight or revealing. The majority of colors and patterns are okay, but the company should make it clear if there are specific patterns or styles that are not allowed.
- Casual accessories that include watches, scarves, rings, larger jewelry are acceptable.
- Clean shoes in most styles, including open toes, are okay. Flip flops are usually not acceptable, and the policy should state whether other sandals and sneakers are okay.
- Hair and nails can be more casual. Nails should remain short and clean, and casual offices generally allow for longer hairstyles and ponytails.
- Hair and nails should be well-groomed. If nails are painted, then brighter colors, designs, or patterns may be acceptable, although the policy should state if there are restrictions on this.
A uniform allows the company to have almost complete control over how its employees dress. The dress code should still include expectations for shoes, jewelry, nails, and any other items that won’t be provided by the company. Consider the cost to the company for uniforms as opposed to other dress codes.
Companies can’t always recoup these costs from employees or when employees leave the organization, so it’s important to understand this cost of doing business prior to moving forward.
Companies also have the option to choose a hybrid of the options above. For example, an employer may choose to provide shirts for specific occasions while having a business professional attire the rest of the time.
How to Make Your Own Dress Code Policy
Let’s look at a general process for writing your policy.
Step 1: Determine Your Objective
What do you want to accomplish with your dress code? Do you want to prevent people from dressing in a way that is inappropriate for your business, or do you want to create a specific image that people can associate with your business? Do you just want a policy to protect your company from potential safety issues, or are you looking for an opportunity to proactively state appearance expectations?
Step 2: Consider Other Influences
Other factors, such as state or local laws, employee hygiene, and visible tattoos should also be considered, as these are items that directly relate to the culture that an organization is trying to create.
In addition, the company should evaluate any potential safety risks or concerns and address specific dress code needs. For example, do employees work in an environment where long sleeves or closed-toe shoes are a safety necessity?
It’s also important to consider how you will address different religious accomodations. You may not know in advance what the requests will be, so have a plan for how you will review and address them and the time frame in which you will have a resolution.
Step 3: Plan How the Policy Will Be Used
Think about how you will enforce your policy and how you will train your managers and workforce to be accountable to it. Whenever you create a new policy, a major consideration should be around upholding and maintaining it. In order to do so successfully, you need to know who will be responsible for monitoring and enforcing. Something like a dress code is best upheld by managers or front-line supervisors, depending on the size and structure of your company. That is because those are the individuals who have the most visibility and also the authority to address concerns immediately.
However, managers need to understand the policy and have training on appropriate techniques to use when the time comes. Communicate any new policies or changes to managers before rolling them out to front-line employees. Determine the best path for answering questions, stating very clearly who is responsible for enforcing the policy and the appropriate steps for addressing issues when they arise. Consider training managers on basic employee relations skills based on their level of comfort and knowledge.
Step 4: Draft the Policy
A dress code policy should be short and to the point. If your policy is more than one or two paragraphs, it is likely too long. You should clearly state the expectations and address any other items.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has resources and templates here for different types of policies. You should also work with the decision-makers of the company to ensure that the dress code is in alignment with the culture. Be sure to check with legal counsel if you have concerns about specific state or local laws or religious accommodations for your employees.
Step 5: Announce and Publish
Once all the necessary stakeholders have had a chance to review and sign off on the policy, it’s time to roll it out. Determine the best type of communication for your specific employee base—memo, email, call, in-person meeting, teleconference, etc. Make it clear what is changing and the purpose behind the change, as well as what the company’s vision is for the organization and how the change helps achieve it. Explain the policy and allow time for questions. Address them to the best of your ability, and if there are items you are unsure of, make note of them and be sure to circle back with the answers in a timely manner.
Once this is complete, circulate a copy of the new policy to all employees and have them sign off that they acknowledge and understand the policy. File the signature pages to document that each employee is aware of the policy and agreed to it.
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Colleen manages a team of HR consultants that work with a variety of industries, specializing in the fields of human resources, strategic planning, and human capital management. Colleen applies expert knowledge, industry experience, and relentless energy to solving companies’ issues. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management as well as women in leadership groups. She is PHR, SPHR, and SHRM-SCP certified. She has an awesome pet cat, Attila and, when she’s not working she loves to travel, enjoy the great outdoors, and volunteer with different local charities.
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