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by HR Guy | March 31, 2009

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Dear HR Guy:

A few years ago, our office adopted a business casual dress code. This policy was warmly embraced by the staff and seemed to be a real morale booster: People were more comfortable, which seemed to make some individuals feel happier and more confident on the job. It also seemed to translate to better relations among the employees because the environment was more laid back. However, many of the employees who were here when the policy first began have left the company. More and more the current employees seem to be abusing the policy by wearing outfits that seem more appropriate for the beach or a day at the local shopping mall. Is this something we should be concerned about? Clients rarely come to the office--most of the client contact is by phone.

The top management wants to do away with the casual dress policy, and to a certain extent, I agree. But I do think rescinding the policy would be dangerous to morale. We've recently had a small number of layoffs, so this may further upset people. What do you advise?

Sincerely,
Clothes Minded

Dear Clothes Minded:

The dilemma you face is tricky because even though the dress code should be set in accordance with what's best for the company's business prospects, changing it could alienate employees. You are probably right to think that the employees will be upset by a drastic change to the dress code. To suddenly go from a business casual situation in which "beachwear" is common (although not condoned) to one in which people are expected to wear suits and ties is likely to cause a major uproar among your staff. Also, consider that for many employees it could be a hardship to purchase the appropriate clothing. Suits and ties can be expensive and typically have to be dry cleaned.

The solution that would prove best is probably not a full-scale overhaul of the dress code, which is what it sounds like management may have in mind. Instead of converting the office from casual to business attire, consider issuing a memo stating what is and isn't appropriate for the office. Be specific. If you don't want people wearing open-toed sandals, the memo should state, "no open-toed sandals." The same goes for halter tops, tank tops, muscle shirts, T-shirts with logos, shorts, stilettos, and so forth. To ensure that you're covering all bases, you may want to sit down with a few managers and/or others on the HR staff to discuss some of the particularly egregious items of clothing that have been worn to the office. Keep in mind that this is not a gripe session at which you get to rip people apart for their taste in clothing or lack of decorum in wearing certain items to the office. Keep it productive. Instead of legislating that men wear ties all the time and that women wear stockings in the summertime, try to limit the list to no-no clothing items that are too provocative or just otherwise not appropriate for the office.

When the memo goes out, make sure that it's clearly stated that this dress code is effective immediately. Also make sure that it's clear that it isn't aimed at any particular individual. If you worked at a clothing store or a sporting goods store, your dress code would probably be something totally different. This is simply about keeping the office professional, and stipulating that employees wear clothing suitable to the environment of the office is reasonable. Even though clients rarely visit the office, you don't want them seeing employees wearing Birkenstocks and shorts on that rare occasion when they do.

Best of luck to you.

Sincerely,
HR Guy

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