Summer can bring out the worst in your employees—the worst fashion choices, that is. As the heat and humidity rises, otherwise rational employees can suddenly decide that torn cut-off shorts, exposed belly buttons and grungy flip-flops revealing raggedy toenails are perfectly reasonable items to wear to work.
If your employees never deal with the public and aren’t working around heavy machinery, maybe that type of attire is fine with you, though you want to make sure the rest of your team isn’t offended. That said, most employers need to draw the line somewhere. If you don’t, believe me, eventually someone will cross it.
Your dress code should be in place all year long (although summer is a good time to send out a refresher that reminds everyone of what is and isn’t permitted). But how can you set a summer dress code that keeps everyone happy? Here are some factors to keep in mind.
Dress codes cannot discriminate against any category of employee. Make sure your dress code doesn’t have an excessive impact on one type of employee based on age, gender, national origin, race, religion or disability. For instance, you can't ban women over 50 from wearing shorts, which would be discriminatory—you have to ban everyone from wearing shorts.
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What about men vs. women? In general, lawsuits based on different dress standards for men and women haven’t been upheld in the courts or by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). What matters is whether your dress code upholds social norms. For instance, you could require men to wear ties and women to wear pantyhose, and that wouldn’t be discrimination. Where you need to watch out is if your rules disproportionately affect or put more of a burden on one gender. For instance, if you made men wear suits and ties while allowed women to dress “business casual,” that might cross the line.
You can (and should) accommodate special needs. For instance, if an employee has a disability that prevents or requires wearing a certain type of clothing (pregnancy is considered a disability), you need to make an allowance for that person. If an employee’s religion requires wearing a certain type of headgear, that needs to be allowed.
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That said, businesses are generally allowed to set dress codes as long as there is a legitimate business reason for the code. Health and safety are legitimate reasons. For instance, if you have employees who work around heavy machinery, you could require them to wear safety goggles or steel-toed work boots, while employees who work in the office are not required to do so.
Write a Policy
When it comes to clothing, you need to spell things out. (Consider how much trouble the vague term “business casual” has caused.) Young workers who are new to the workforce may interpret “professional” or “appropriate” much differently than you do. Your policy should clearly provide examples of what is and is not acceptable. That might include:
- business suit
- closed-toed shoes (not athletic shoes)
- skirts to or below the knee
- polo or other collared shirt
- khaki pants
- dark-wash jeans with no holes, professional cut (i.e. trouser cut)
- torn or faded jeans
- tank tops
- tube tops
- exposed midriffs
- baseball caps
- t-shirts with slogans
Depending on your staff, you may even need to spell out things like “employees are required to wear undergarments” and “employees cannot wear gang attire or symbols.”
Tattoos and body piercings have become widespread, so consider how you want to handle these. You can generally require employees to cover tattoos or remove piercings if they conflict with your business image.
Once you set your policy, it’s important to apply it consistently. Employees feel strongly about dress issues and will notice anything they perceive as unfair. This leads to resentment.
If someone’s violating the policy, handle with care. Particularly with women, commenting on inappropriate clothing might make them feel so uncomfortable that it gets construed as sexual harassment. If you’re a man, consider having a female manager discuss it with the woman instead. Don’t take an accusatory tone, but simply explain the reasons behind your rules, and figure out if there’s a solution that doesn’t require the employee to go home and change (like putting on a sweater).
Need more examples? Check out these dress code samples and the EEOC’s anti-discrimination policies. If you have any concerns as you develop your dress code, it’s a good idea to consult an attorney.
Read more articles on small-business HR policies.