Starbucks Baristas Can Now Dress to Impress (Or Not)

Last week Starbucks announced that it was relaxing its store level dress code to allow shorts, skirts, leggings, brightly dyed hair and even hats. The wider variety of clothing options may be worn in black, grey, navy, brown, or patterns in these colour and must be paired with Starbucks’ green apron. Hair can now be dyed any colour — many retailers maintain a policy of “natural” or “natural-seeming” hair colours only — so long as it’s semi-permanent and does not violate health and safety rules. That means no glitter and no spray-on or rub-on colour.

Cosimo LaPorta, Retail Store Operations executive vice president, said that the motivation for the change was that they “want partners to be as proud of their look as they are when they tie on their green apron.” The change comes two years after a previous dress code revision that moved to allow baristas to display visible tattoos so long as they are “tasteful.” As with all dress codes, there’s plenty of room for individual store managers and employees to negotiate what appropriate and tasteful actually mean. It’s in this negotiation that a part of company and store culture — its visual expression — is made. What’s great about a relaxed dress code is that it allows more individual expression, which then contributes to a richer whole — that is, being yourself at work means bringing more of yourself to the team.

What’s a Dress Code Really For?

No one enjoys being the fashion police at work but for many HR practitioners and managers, it’s a role they’re unwillingly thrust into. There’s always going to be an employee who pushes the dress code to the limit, or who misunderstands, or who just plain doesn’t care. And it’s HR’s unenviable duty to remind these employees of what’s in the dress code and why it matters. That second part is the hard one, but you can’t get anywhere without it. Employees who don’t understand or care about the dress code may shape up for a few weeks but it won’t last — it can’t, because they haven’t bought into this aspect of the company culture.

Additive policies, dress codes that contribute something to the culture or goals of the organization rather than just monitor employees, have the best chance of working. Almost all retail and food service organizations have dress codes. Some are strict and some are relaxed, but they all serve to do three things:

  1. Ensure that health and safety regulations are being followed
  2. Make it easy for customers to identify employees
  3. Ensure that employee dress is in accordance with the brand

These are incredibly easy goals to communicate to employees and they’re generally pretty easy to enforce. The fringe on your skirt could get caught in something. Don’t wear that skirt again. Your hoodie conceals the company apron and makes it hard for customers to figure out of if you work here. Wear it under the apron, please. The political slogan on your t-shirt is not something our brand wants to get mixed up in. Save it for your time off, thanks.

These aren’t, at heart, difficult conversations and just one of them is usually enough to get employees working with you, and not against you. But if your dress code policy goes beyond these three things, looking to achieve something very specific in employee dress, and if you can’t connect that goal to the organization’s larger goals or culture, you’re in more nebulous and difficult to navigate territory. That is, if your dress code doesn’t make immediate sense (“embarrassing hats and 30 pieces of flare for everyone!”) or it doesn’t seem fair (“short skirts and low cut shirts for women; button down shirts for men!”), you’re going to have a hard time.

A dress code policy can only work when it goes with not against the grain of the wider company culture, and if it’s fair, informed, culturally sensitive and equitably enforced. It can only work if the reason for the policy is widely understood and embraced my employees and if HR and managers alike trust employees to get it. Frankly, if you can’t explain your dress code, it’s is doomed to fail.

That’s where Starbucks’ recent revision comes in.

Trust Your Employees to Dress to Impress

The Starbucks dress code has changed several times over the years, usually to allow for more casual clothing and more personal expression on the part of its baristas — and that’s a good thing.

Of course Starbucks is more than just a coffee company. It’s become a lifestyle brand that aims to project good and progressive vibes: corporate and environmental responsibility; support for and responsiveness to customers and employees alike; and a not-too-cool coolness, a happy corporate middle ground between a bland coffee-and-donut shop, and a too-cool-for-moms local hipster coffee joint. Starbucks wants you to be comfortable in its stores and to believe in its brand enough to keep dropping $7 on a caffeinated milkshake every time you stop by. And it wants you, the customer, and you, the employee, to believe that it’s treating its workers right. Its latest dress code revision aims to help achieve that delicate exercise in customer and employee and candidate facing branding.

Cosimo LaPorta says that Starbucks wants their baristas to be “proud of their look.” They want their baristas to take care in their appearance, to look great every day, and they think the best way to achieve this is to let them have a little more freedom. He’s right, of course. When people can express themselves, when they can wear clothes and accessories they genuinely like, they are prouder and happier. Starbucks’ new dress code allows them new options but within the bounds of the corporate brand; it’s designed carefully and explicitly to convey that cool-but-not-too-cool brand; allowing each store and each employee to be a little different, but wrapping them all up in that familiar green apron. And, importantly, it leaves room for managers and teams to work together to figure out what works best: it trusts employees to dress their best and it trusts managers to ensure that everyone, employees and workers alike, are comfortable and respected.That’s the key.

You may be thinking that what’s great for Starbucks wouldn’t work so well in your law firm, but the important part about this news isn’t the dress code itself, the specific clothing and hairstyles it allows, but rather the relationship it’s trying to foster between employer and employee, and between brand and customers. The move to relax a dress code is a gesture of trust and respect, as much as it is a change in policy; it demonstrates that Starbucks trusts its employees to get it, and that its employees can trust Starbucks to respond to and respect their needs and desires.

Trust your employees to dress to impress and most of them will. And the few who don’t? Well, HR and management will never completely escape its fashion police duties, so it had better dress to impress too.

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Megan Purdy

Former recruiter, HR pro and Workology editor. Comics, cheese and political economy.


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