Question: Now that the weather is warmer, one of our employees has begun to dress inappropriately for work. Her clothes are becoming more revealing and she has worn flip flops several times. What are our options? Can we send her home to change and, if so, do we have to pay her for that time?
Answer: You’re not alone. As summer weather kicks in, many employers struggle with the issue of employee dress and knowing how to handle these situations.
Let’s first address what you cannot do as an employer. You cannot create dress code or appearance policies that interfere with an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. For example, if an employee’s religion requires head coverings, creating a “no hat” policy may conflict with that practice. As an employer, you need to ensure that your dress code policy includes language stating that you are willing to make an accommodation for religious practices unless it creates a safety or workplace hazard. Similarly, employees whose clothing represents their country of origin or that stem from a disability may require an accommodation.
What can you do as an employer? You can make the rules for the standard of dress and grooming for your workplace. Outline appropriate protective clothing to meet safety requirements too. It’s a best practice to publish an employee handbook no matter your size. Your handbook is an excellent place to include a dress and grooming policy.
When you develop your policy, be specific without overdoing it. For example, having a dress code policy that says, “We require business casual attire,” is probably too vague. “Business casual” can mean different things to different people. On the other hand, specifying the brand, color and style of clothing may be too much information. Try a middle ground such as:
- Shirts: All shirts with collars, blouses, golf and polo shirts.
- Pants: Casual trousers or capri-length pants. Jeans without holes or fraying are acceptable.
- Footwear: Slip-on or tie casual shoes or dress sandals.
You can send an employee home to change or groom. If an employee arrives at work dressed inappropriately or poorly groomed (employees with body odor issues could be a bigger problem in the hot summer months), be sure to discuss your concerns with the employee privately. Refer to your written policy and explain without judgment why the choice of dress or lack of grooming violates the policy. Allow the employee the option to return home or, if the employee does not live near the workplace, to leave work and shop for more appropriate attire. Follow the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) rules for payment of time off that includes pay for exempt employees who worked any part of the workweek. If the employee is non-exempt, the FLSA does not require you to pay him or her for this time away from work.
You can be flexible. If instituting casual Fridays or occasional breaks from your dress code would improve morale, consider doing so. Some employers offer the option of more casual dress on Fridays during the summer months. You can—and should—set standards for what is and is not appropriate on casual days and ask that employees consider their schedule when choosing their dress. Employees with an important client meeting, for example, may want to refrain from dressing too casually.
Finally, once you have created your policies, be sure to apply them evenly to avoid claims of unfair treatment.