How to Create a Casual Dress Code Policy

In some offices, suits and ties have gone the way of the typewriter. Casual Friday has turned into the casual workweek, and it has become common to see people at work in jeans and T-shirts. But where do we draw the line? Are shorts and an old, faded T-shirt acceptable workplace attire? And how do you enforce a dress code when you want to create a more relaxed work environment? Even in a casual work environment, it is still a good idea to have a dress code.

Have a Clear Policy

All employers should still have a dress code in their employee handbook. A casual workplace does not mean that employees can wear whatever they want. Think through where you want to draw the line. Are shorts and flip-flops acceptable? What about halter tops or low cut shirts? Your type of business and the level of interaction with the public will influence your policy. For example, a warehouse worker may be perfectly fine in a T-shirt and shorts, but a sales rep at the same company may need to dress a bit nicer when meeting with customers.

A good dress code also includes expectations on hygiene, whether perfumes and scents are allowed, any uniform requirements (e.g. nametag, type of shirt, pants color) and specific safety requirements (e.g. footwear, hair pulled back). Regardless of how casual your workplace is, you will probably want to say something about clothing being free of offensive logos or statements. Words or images of a sexual nature and racial slurs on T-shirt could be harassment.

Employers may create policies restricting tattoos and piercings. Just make sure that you are taking into account religious beliefs when banning such things. I will talk about religious accommodation in the last section of this post.

HR & Managers as Fashion Police

When it comes to dress codes, HR staff and managers end up being the company fashion police. We are left having to interpret the policy and figure out what is and isn’t appropriate. It can be a bit awkward to address dress code violations, especially if the violation has to do with hygiene or clothing that is too revealing.

With any kind of dress code violation that is uncomfortable to talk about, be sensitive. Take a respectful approach and avoid being condescending. Review the policy, address how the dress code violation affects business and offer some examples of appropriate dress. If you need to speak with a female employee about clothing that is too revealing, it is best to have a female manager or HR person speak with her to avoid an awkward conversation with a male manager that could be perceived as harassing.

During the course of my HR career, there have been a few dress code violations that have surprised me and made me wonder if people really pay attention when getting dressed in the morning. In one situation, a warehouse employee walked up to HR to drop off paperwork. Plastered across his T-shirt in big letters was, “F— the Yankees.” The F word was spelled out on the shirt. When we told the employee that he needed to either turn the shirt inside out or go home and change, he got upset, but he eventually gave in and went home to put on a different shirt. In a similar situation, I had to confront an employee who walked into HR wearing a T-shirt with what appeared to be a safety sign on it. The sign was a warning about the size of a certain part of his anatomy. Needless to say, I had to send him home to change.

In your dress code, remind employees that they may be sent home if they show up dressed in violation of the policy. When you send an employee home to change, you may require them to clock out.

Accommodating All Employees

Some employees have certain dress, grooming standards or physical appearance requirements dictated by their religious beliefs. Even with a dress code in place, you must reasonably accommodate religious requirements. Reasonable accommodation does not mean moving the employee to a job that does not require interaction with the public. Remember that in order to justify not allowing the employee to comply with their religious beliefs, you typically must show that there is a safety concern or undue hardship.

Some states have specific protections for gender identity and expression, so employers are required to allow employees to dress in a way consistent with their gender identity or expression. Even if your state does not currently include gender identity in its list of protected classes, it sets a standard for inclusion and nondiscrimination when you make it a part of your policy and practice.

How do you set the standard for casual dress in your workplace? Do you have any strange stories about dress code violations in a casual workplace?

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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