How To Develop an Effective Dress Code

Dress Codes - People in office

Can I make my employee remove his nose piercing? Can I require dresses? What if my employee smells horrible? 

These and other questions frequently arise when companies are developing effective dress codes. A thorough dress code that respects each employee’s judgment and comfort can be challenging for employers to come up with on the fly — let’s answer some of your most common dress code questions!

Can my dress code forbid piercings and tattoos?

Company policies may prohibit piercings and tattoos that conflict with the company’s brand, impart offensive, hostile, or discriminatory messages, or create safety risks such as jewelry being caught in machinery. In some instances, though, jewelry or tattoos may be a meaningful part of the employee’s religion. Prohibiting jewelry worn for religious reasons may be perceived as discrimination against an employee’s Title VII rights.

As with any dress code question, perceived violations of the policy should be taken on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the variation is protected by Title VII or would truly harm the company’s image or safety record. 

As clothing options change to accommodate the rising temperatures, summertime can bring new challenges regarding the dress code. It serves as an opportunity to revisit guidelines and communicate expectations to employees on how they can alter their work clothes for the summer months. 

Can my dress code require that females wear dresses, skirts, makeup, high heels, or other items typically worn by women?

Any company policy that requires an employee to subscribe to gender stereotypes, including stereotypes of how people think a woman or man should look or dress, may violate Title VII protections against discrimination based on gender. 

While companies may have specific standards that need to be addressed, a too-strict dress code can lead to decreased employee morale. Companies should consider alternative policies that do not require specific articles of gender-specific clothing. An example may be a policy that requires a generally well-groomed and professional appearance for employees interacting with the public.

Can I require my employees to have good hygiene, or what if an employee complains about a coworker’s foul odor?

While your employee handbook can include a policy recommending good hygiene and cleanliness, Nextep recommends that you tread carefully in enforcing the policy for the following reasons:

  • An employee’s economic circumstances may prevent them from replacing worn or old clothing.
  • An employee from another country may eat ethnic food that imparts certain body odors. Requiring that an employee stop eating ethnic food may violate Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin.
  • Certain medical conditions or disabilities may create body odors beyond the employee’s control. In this instance, employers may need to engage in an interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be made per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Complaints should be taken seriously, though, as poor hygiene can create health risks, and fragrances such as perfumes and candles can aggravate symptoms for employees suffering from asthma or allergies. Fragrance sensitivity may also require reasonable accommodation under the ADA, so refusing to address an employee’s complaints about a coworker or to create a fragrance-free zone could potentially violate the complainant’s rights. Solutions can include desk reassignment, ensuring good office ventilation, and possibly investing in air purifiers.

In dealing with employees who may have poor hygiene, employers should maintain discretion and sensitivity. 

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Developing a dress code

If you don’t have a dress code or need to make modifications to a current policy, be sure to work with your HR rep to iron out the details. Here are some suggestions to get you started: 

  • Decide how detailed you want your dress code to be. Often, companies find success with a dress code that allows for interpretation and employee autonomy, such as a policy that simply states the need to present one’s self professionally and leaves interpretation up to the individual employee.
  • Determine any safety needs for the workspace and the impact those might have on the dress code, such as the need for closed-toed shoes. If clothing needs to accommodate safety concerns, be specific in the policy and explain to employees why the policy is necessary to create a safe environment.
  • Communicate the dress code to employees upon hire, policy revisions, and as a refresher throughout their employment. Provide a central copy of the policy and employee handbook that can be easily accessed. Be sure to obtain signed acknowledgments from all employees indicating that they have read and understand the latest version of the company handbook.
  • Dress code guidelines and other important handbook policies should be reviewed annually to ensure compliance with the latest laws and that the company’s needs are addressed. Employers must ensure that dress code and hygiene policies do not create an oppressive company culture or discriminate against an employee’s religion, gender, nationality, or other Title VII-protected areas. 
  • Be respectful of the fact that the employees in your workforce are adults and are capable of dressing themselves without excessive company interference or direction.  
  • If one-on-one coaching is needed to address clothing-related concerns, managers can be successful by sticking to the facts, limiting the discussion to the employee’s compliance with the guidelines outlined in the policy, and refraining from any fashion commentary. If the employee’s manager is a member of the opposite gender, it is recommended that a witness of the same gender who is of a higher rank than the employee be present during the conversation.

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