Dress Codes: One Size Does Not Fit All

Dress codes have been on my my mind lately as I’m leading a speed solutions session for my local SHRM group on dress codes. There was recently a brouhaha around United Airlines & their dress code for employees or their guests traveling. United uses dress code as part of their Brand and, whether people know you are flying for free or not, United wants you to dress the part, especially in First or Business Class. When I worked for United back in my single days, I was often asked to change if there was an unexpected seat available in first class. I can remember looking through my bag for a collared shirt once as I didn’t think about it and had a sweatshirt on.

Today, I work in a much more casual environment. We take care of campus and you don’t need your plumber or electrician in a suit or tie. So we have uniform shirts. When I started, we had 2 styles to choose from and office staff were encouraged to wear a uniform shirt – or something more business professional. Last year, we allowed some office staff to have a few more choices to better fit the business world. There was a bit of a hullabaloo because some felt it wasn’t “fair.” And we had to go down the road of fair does not necessarily mean exactly the same.

These 2 issues bring me to the challenge of dress code: something that covers your brand, is “fair,” and makes sense in your environment. Many larger companies who have been around for a long time have dress codes that may seem archaic. I remember going to work for a hospital in 2007 and I was shocked that they still required female office staff to wear nylons or tights when wearing a skirt [to be fair, the policy said you couldn’t be “barefoot” in your shoes, so men had to wear socks]. While I was there, we relaxed the dress code some, but not without trouble. We had some staff assume that because you were no longer required to wear stockings, you could now wear flip flops to work. Not the image we wanted our office staff to give off to our customers/patients. Our brand was that of a serious, caring hospital and flip flops just don’t give off that professional vibe.

There are a couple of points that I think I’m going to cover in my speed solutions: the first is if you have a dress code or if you are creating one, why. What message/brand are you trying to convey with that dress code? Your brand is a combination of who you want to be, who you are and where you are. A dress code that works in New York City may or may not work in Brookings South Dakota. Most offices want a “professional” vibe, but perhaps that means different things to different people. And who is your customer? Do you need to maintain a certain image for your customers?

The second point is what is fair and how do you help your employees understand what fair actually means. Is it fair that I don’t have to wear a work shirt or fair that the electricians don’t need to wear a tie? Of course. Our jobs are different; we are displaying a different image to each other and our customers.

The final point goes back to the post I had on training & the one size fits all mentality. We do this because we don’t want to have those difficult conversations around something as personal as clothing. I’ve always been one to push the envelope when it comes to dress code and have been asked to either change or not wear something again. I prefer a more casual work environment & finally found one where it’s okay to show up in jeans if I’m only sitting behind my desk all day. I have a couple of uniform shirts (more comfortable & office looking than the ones the guys wear). I’ve also made it a point to talk with my staff when they start what my expectations are for dress. You want to be sure the expectations are there from the start to avoid some awkward conversations later. You may need to have that conversation, but at least with the expectations up front, there shouldn’t be any arguing.

And for goodness sake, have the conversation in person! Emailing or texting your staff person asking them to change is worse than whatever they are wearing. Trust me.


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