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Laura L. Rubenstein: Should you tell employees how to dress for work?

Laura Rubenstein

Laura L. Rubenstein

You may have heard about the Alameda Unified School District in California rolling out a revised dress code policy for a year-long trial basis. The policy simply states students must wear bottoms, tops, shoes and clothing that cover 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 seersucker suits, cartoon ties, bedazzled sandals or sheer fabrics. (Oh my!)

Perhaps we have Levi Strauss to blame, thanks to its campaign more than a quarter-century ago that introduced casual wear on a wide-scale basis into the workplace. Levi’s marketing gurus assumed 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.

But some companies continue to struggle when requests to relax the dress code are introduced into their business environment. For one, employers find daunting 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. 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? And given the empowering #MeToo movement, are certain dress codes meant to protect women or restrict them?

Balancing act

At the same time, however, 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 at all instructing employees how to dress for work. In an ideal world, managers trust their employees to come to work dressed appropriately for their particular duties.  Earlier this year, General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, for example, eliminated the company’s 10-page dress-code policy and replaced it with one that simply said “dress appropriately.” Her rationale was that overly prescriptive policies and procedures don’t help empower people.  Barra claimed this small step has already 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 one’s 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.

Laura L. Rubenstein is a partner in the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Wright, Constable & Skeen LLP in Baltimore. She can be reached at lrubenstein@wcslaw.com.