The Challenge of Enforcing Dress Codes in the Workplace

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In most workplaces, there’s some form of dress code. Many restaurants have a complete uniform that employees are required to wear. Offices have a wide range of dress code requirements, from wearing a suit and tie every day to not wearing jeans except on Fridays. Most businesses frown on employees coming to work in fuzzy robes and bunny slippers.

Most of the time, dress codes exist for a reason. Companies with employees who meet with clients want to make sure that the employees make a good (and professional) impression. Companies that are strongly focused on brand want their employees to wear the company logo as much as possible.

But what about the gray areas? Say, for example, a company has a strict “no headgear” policy to ensure that employees don’t come to work in baseball caps. How does that affect the Muslim woman who comes to work in a hijab, or the Jewish man who wears a yarmulke? Or if a company institutes a rule that men with long hair must wear it in a ponytail, but don’t enforce the same rule on women with long hair?

It all amounts to discrimination, and it’s illegal. In the case of the hijab and the yarmulke, it’s religious discrimination, and in the case of the ponytails, sex discrimination. So what’s a company to do?

There are two very simple and logical approaches that can save a company a work of headaches (and potential lawsuits). First, flexibility is key. If we go back to the “no headgear” policy, it can be revamped as a “no baseball caps” policy, since that’s the issue it was created to solve in the first place. Second, companies need to make sure that policies that could be considered discriminatory to either sex are enforced on both genders. So either everyone is allowed to wear their hair down, or everybody’s got to tie it back.

Our two examples are by no means the only gray areas that exist. For example, what if a company has a policy that everyone must wear a tie, but one employee has breathing problems and wearing a tie with a buttoned collar impacts him medically? Again, flexibility is the watchword. Perhaps the policy can be altered so that no one need wear a tie, as long as they’re still in collared button-downs. Or maybe that particular employee can be switched to a position that isn’t customer-facing. There’s always a fair solution.

And one last thing to remember is that a dress code is much easier to enforce if the reasoning behind it is explained to employees, rather than having it foisted upon them. As long as the lines of communication are open, everyone should be looking smart.

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