In the latest Weekly Wright Report:
Should You Tell Your Employees How to Dress?
You may have heard about the Alameda Unified School District in California which rolled out a revised 2018 dress code policy for a year-long trial basis in its public schools. The policy simply states that students must wear bottoms, tops, shoes and clothing that covers genitals, buttocks, and areolae/nipples with opaque material. Acceptable clothing includes: hats, midriff baring shirts, pajamas, ripped jeans as long as underwear is not exposed, and tube tops. Clothing is prohibited if it has violent language or images, depicts drugs or alcohol, hate speech, pornography, or images and/or language that create a hostile or intimidating environment based on any protected class.
Clearly, public schools are not private workplaces. But employers are all over the map in what they consider acceptable workplace attire, even companies in the same industry. Sometimes expectations of how one should dress for work arise from generational differences, industry standards, religious upbringing, or geographical location. Other times, it’s due to company tradition or culture that has remained consistent for decades.
Historically, professions such as banking, insurance, finance, accounting, law, and sales required employees to wear dark suits of the same fabric and color in either black, charcoal or navy, a white long-sleeved shirt, conservative tie (for men) or scarf (for women) worn just under the collar of the jacket, and dark-colored polished shoes. Many banks and professional service firms adhere to these same requirements today because when handling other people’s money or advising about important business or legal issues, portraying a capable and professional impression is easily conveyed through a more formal appearance. How one dresses can be an outward sign of professionalism, attention to detail and concern for clients.
But inevitably, every workplace has at least one rebellious outlier who brings their zany style into the office. This can include sear sucker suits, cartoon ties, bedazzled sandals, or sheer fabrics. Oh my!
Perhaps we have Levi Strauss to blame for its campaign that introduced casual wear on a wide-scale basis into the workplace. Levi’s marketing gurus assumed that a relaxed dress code would lead to happier and more productive employees and crafted “A Guide to Casual Business Wear,” a pamphlet showing professionals dressed in Levi’s products, notably Dockers khakis. Levi’s brilliantly mailed the pamphlet to 25,000 Human Resources departments across the country, resulting in hundreds of companies adopting causal Friday, business casual and other types of relaxed dress policies.
Despite the popular trend influenced by Levi’s 26 years ago, some companies continue to struggle when requests to relax the dress code are introduced into a business environment. For one, employers find the confluence of younger folks entering the workplace who are used to having few rules on how to dress and have been encouraged to express themselves through clothing, body art, piercings, and unnatural hair color is daunting. Can employees be trusted to exercise good judgment and appropriate taste for the workplace? Will shorts be too short? What about frayed or ripped jeans? Will clothes be too tight, too revealing, or too distracting? Should companies legislate dress that is “too sexy” or “too distracting” because it could be viewed as inviting disrespectful behavior from the opposite sex? (Think Simon Cowell who tends to button only the bottom two buttons of his shirts). Can permitting an anything-goes dress code be a slippery slope leading to sloppy work, lack of productivity and sexual harassment?
But should you have to tell your employees how to dress? How detailed should your policy be? Should you provide picture examples of appropriate clothing? Many companies today still debate whether to have a written policy instructing employees how to dress for work at all. In an ideal world, managers trust their employees to come to work dressed appropriately for their particular duties. For example, earlier this year Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, eliminated their 10-page dress code policy and implemented a policy that said simply, “dress appropriately.” Her rationale was that overly prescriptive policies and procedures don’t help empower people. Ms. Barra claimed that this small step that contributed to a positive culture change.
Generally, companies can dictate what their employees wear to work, as long as it doesn’t have a discriminatory bent that violates ones protected class (religion, gender identity, sex, age, etc.). Company leaders need to understand their own culture and determine what kind of dress code policy should be adopted.
Adopting or revising a dress code policy can be a delicate balancing act. On one hand, you want to ensure that employees understand the rationale behind a dress code. On the other hand, you want to make sure you’re in touch with customers who may be turned off by a hoodie and flip flops or intimidated by a suit and tie. Most employees consider a relaxed dress code a perk, even if it’s only on Fridays.
Before making a decision to adopt or change your existing policy, take the temperature of your employees and understand your workplace culture. And no matter what, always ensure that employees wear bottoms, tops, shoes and clothing that covers genitals, buttocks, and areolae/nipples with opaque material.
(This article is printed with permission from The Daily Record.)
Practicing What They Preach
Among other tasks which we perform for clients, we keep an idea on emerging legislation and governmental policies which may affect our clients. In addition to debating new legislation, the General Assembly also compiles a list of reports and issues which are front and center of its constituents’ issues. One of the more interesting ones this year is the effort by the General Assembly to identify its own problems and address any harassment in the legislature and related government branches.
A recent report provided insight into the steps the General Assembly was taking to ensure it was practicing what it was preaching in enforcing respect for its workers. Not only does the report of the Workplace Harassment Commission provide a comprehensive outline of what the General Assembly is doing, it provides an excellent roadmap for all employers who want to ensure they are providing a workplace where harassment and discrimination are unwelcome.
The commission developed comprehensive strategies for strengthening training requirements in the Legislative Branch, improving workplace culture, and achieving an appropriate balance between confidentiality and transparency during the investigation of workplace harassment complaints. The recommendations of the Commission included the following:
- Improving employee awareness by posting signage with information on where to report workplace harassment.
- Reviewing alcohol policies for the workplace in order to promote a more professional work environment.
- Conducting regular climate surveys of staff to assess the incidence, prevalence, and other characteristics of workplace harassment.
- Clarifying and promoting the rights of victims, including developing a list of potential victims’ advocates that will be made available to all staff.
- Strengthening training requirements and considering opportunities for combined trainings across all levels of staff.
- Mandating the compilation and sharing of annual training compliance reports.
- Combining and updating the anti-harassment policies to clarify provisions related to confidentiality and strengthen prohibitions on retaliation.
- Reviewing procedures for independent investigations of workplace harassment complaints and compiling a list of qualified independent investigators.
If you need help in evaluating and improving your processes, feel free to reach out to our attorneys to provide guidance.
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