Dressing for success – not stress

Policies, reinforcement help HR deal with employees wearing inappropriate attire

Spring has finally arrived and summer days are on their way. In anticipation of the summer heat, employees might be dreaming of days at the beach.

But HR might see the hot weather season leading to another round of unexpected and unwanted “hot topic” people challenges. That’s because HR professionals know summer often means more than the challenges of vacation scheduling — it often means reverting to the role of fashion police. This can range from creating a dress code policy to sending an employee home for inappropriate dress to accusations of sexual harassment.

Who would have thought workplace dress code could be such a complex issue? Yet, as the world has moved to more casual work attire, there appears to be more and more of a need to define what “casual” is and figure out how to deal with what might be considered inappropriate dress.

So, why is dress code so important? The biggest issue is the need to project a professional presence, especially in relation to customer service since customers tend to make up their minds based on first impressions.

Therefore, if female employees are showing bare midriffs, lots of cleavage, sloppy beach sandals or toe rings, they’ll make a poor first impression. If male employees present themselves in a T-shirt printed with loud, vulgar language and the sleeves ripped off, what kind of first impression are they making?

In addition, inappropriate dress in the office can lead to serious interpersonal and legal issues. For instance, I heard of one HR professional who had to deal with a situation where a male employee was said to be continually staring and gawking at a female colleague. In turn, he accused the woman of setting a sexual harassment “trap” — and the fight was on.

When investigated, it was found the female employee wore inappropriate, low-cut
blouses that didn’t leave much to the imagination. And, as you might have guessed, the organization didn’t have a dress code policy.

Overall, failing to implement a dress code policy will result in employee confusion about what is or is not appropriate to wear and, therefore, there will be inconsistency at the organization. Not only does this create dissonance for customers, it insidiously erodes the trust and respect customers expect. It can also create interpersonal conflict, appearances of favouritism and lead to formal complaints of sexual harassment.

But organizations can also go overboard in creating a dress code policy. An overly specific policy that is 45 pages long will not be effective. As well, referring specifically to name-brand clothing or using dress terminology such as “tube tops,” “capris” or “Dockers” will require constant updates to the policy as fashion changes come about.

Developing a policy

The following basic tips will help with the development of a dress policy: •Consider the nature and size of the business and develop a policy that appropriately matches its needs. Determine if there are different needs for front-line employees versus those who never interact with customers.

• Identify areas of conflict that are occurring or anticipated and use this as a guide for developing the policy.

• Avoid references to name-brand clothing and, instead, describe clothing from the general point of bare arms,
bare midriff, plunging necklines, too much cleavage, beachwear, gym or yoga wear.

• Involve employees in the process through a committee that identifies dress code issues so the development of the policies will be accepted, appreciated and followed.

• Ensure all words and terms are defined, rather than using broad terms such as “proper.”

• Be certain the policies respect the rights of employees in regard to religion or disability.

• Communicate the policy rationale and policy steps and procedures throughout the organization.
No matter how good the dress code policy is, there will always be a few employees who love to challenge the system. So, it’s important to deal with the problem quickly. There is no need for a special disciplinary system, simply use the process already established at the organization.

Typically, this means taking the employee aside, describing the policy, informing him about why his personal dress is considered inappropriate and sending him home to change. At the same time, use the opportunity to reinforce the dress code policy with all employees.

If, however, the employee continues to violate the dress code and defy the policies, move to the next step of a written warning.

Dealing with an inappropriate dress issue often has additional complications. For instance, some managers are not concerned about a dress code while others fail to deal with this issue when it arises.

Therefore, it’s important to ensure senior management not only supports and models the dress code policy but abides by and enforces it. The best way to have managers on HR’s side is to ask for their input into the design of the policy and to bring it forward to the senior management team for ratification.

If there is a departmental issue that arises, offer to assist the manager to deal with it. Provide coaching or, if necessary, write out a script.

Most people don’t realize work dress is essentially a form of social media — our clothes send out messages to the public. And most corporations want to send out a message of trust, sincerity, integrity and service.

So, make sure the dress code policy helps employees convey the right message.

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