Culture

From Hoodies to Business Suits: How to Create a Company Dress Code that Mixes Culture and Compliance

April 15, 2016

As companies grow and start hiring more employees, it often becomes necessary to create a company dress code policy where there wasn’t one before. Likewise, companies often have to alter their official dress code as they grow.

Company culture can play a lot into your dress code and vice versa. However, many business owners struggle with how to create a dress code that projects the company culture they have (or want to have) while also keeping their business compliant.

You can read more on the TriNet blog about the importance of company culture and other tips for improving company culture.

Whether your company’s culture and success might benefit from instituting or updating a dress code policy depends on a few factors, primarily:

  • Whether your employees deal directly with clients and/or the public.
  • What type of public image the company needs to portray to be successful.
  • Whether safety concerns require specific types of attire.

The impact of clients on your dress code
The first factor contributing to your company’s dress code decision – employee interaction with clients – is a justifiable business reason for creating a policy that calls for more formal attire. While “business casual” attire policies have gained overwhelming acceptance over the years, many employers specify that more formal attire is appropriate for in-person sales calls, client visits or industry trade conferences.

For companies or individual employees where clients expect a high level of formal professionalism, a dress code somewhere between business casual dress and buttoned-up business attire is perfectly acceptable.

Dress code and public image
While working with clients usually necessitates a more formal dress code, formal is not always best when it comes to using your employees’ attire to create the type of public image that will enhance the company’s brand.

In industries such as finance, professional services or high-end retail, clients will probably judge your business based on the formal appearance (or lack thereof) of your employees.  The type of people who will thrive working for you likely already expect this type of dress code.

However, there are times when having a more casual dress code might be not only permissible but desirable. This is especially true for companies or teams where client interaction is either minimal or where casual dress is part of the industry. For tech startups, software companies and businesses in which a high level of creativity is expected, a more formal dress code could actually have a negative impact on creating a culture that attracts the type of employees you need. In this case, “dress for success” at your office may very well mean wearing hoodies, jeans and sneakers to work.

Even if you allow informal attire, it is still a good idea to formalize the rules of your dress code by creating a written policy (more on this below). This is especially true if you would like to keep “casual” from becoming revealing, unsafe, offensive or unhygienic.

If you are having trouble reconciling a casual dress code with business success, think of Apple, Inc. founder Steve Jobs or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who each built multi-billion dollar companies wearing t-shirts and jeans, and whose casual attire is now synonymous with the much-loved brands of their respective products.

Dressing for safety
The third factor often necessitating a dress code policy is safety. When an employee is regularly engaged in more physical, non-office work, avoiding loose-fitting clothing and wearing proper footwear and headwear is of increased importance. Workplace safety is certainly another justifiable business reason for dictating appropriate attire and for prohibiting certain other attire in the workplace.

Keeping your dress code compliant
While the attire proscriptions outlined above are (for the most part) permissible, employers must take care not to create dress code requirements or announce attire prohibitions that adversely impact employees based on a protected category. Some of the more commonly-impacted protected categories are religion, national origin, disability, gender and gender identity.

For example, an attire policy stating that employees must be clean-shaven may be found to be discriminatory against men who practice religions prohibiting cutting hair or shaving beards. It is strongly advised that employers include a provision in any and all attire policies stating that an employee should speak directly to his or her manager if he or she would like to request a reasonable accommodation (religious or otherwise) with regard to compliance with some aspect of the employer’s dress code policy.

It is also worth mentioning that some companies take it too far when creating a dress code to enhance their public image and they end up creating a dress code policy that is very exclusionary or geared toward creating a shallow, appearance-based image of their company. These same companies can also find themselves on the wrong side of discrimination lawsuits.

For this reason, it is important to ensure that your dress code is one that all employees – including those in the aforementioned protected categories – can reasonably follow. TriNet can help ensure your dress code is both effective and compliant.

Keep the following overarching factors in mind when drafting an attire policy:
Communicate clearly and openly and be specific wherever possible. Clear and open communication begins with a thoughtful, written policy that is included in the company’s employee handbook and accessible to employees at all times. Wherever possible, use specific, objective language when describing attire, rather than terms like “appropriate” or “professional,” which mean different things to different people.

Do not set dramatically different standards for men and women. Gender stereotypes should be avoided. Further, transgender employees may dress consistently in accordance with their full-time gender presentation. The following attire is generally okay to disallow, depending on the needs of your company culture, and is not gender-specific:

  • T-shirts containing slogans or pictures.
  • Torn clothing.
  • Extremely baggy pants or shorts.
  • Sweatpants or sweatshirts.
  • Revealing attire or visible undergarments.
  • Footwear such as flip flops – although some employers specify that sandals with heel straps are permitted as they do not make the “flip flop” noise.
  • Hats or baseball caps – although reasonable accommodations should be made for certain headwear unless it presents a legitimate safety issue.

Base your company’s policy on business reasons rather than your personal taste. Make sure the company’s position on attire is based on what makes sense for the company culture and environment, rather than one person’s personal sensibilities.

Enforce your company’s policy in a consistent manner. If an exception or reasonable accommodation to the attire policy is made for one employee, make sure to make the same exception for any subsequent, similarly-situated employees.

As always, please contact TriNet with any specific questions on drafting a dress code policy for your company, or to obtain a sample policy.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

By Jacqueline Lennertz

Jacqueline Lennertz is a client services attorney with TriNet.

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