The Dos and Don’ts of Workplace Dress Codes

dress code

A business dress code detailed in your employee handbook provides guidelines to help your employees understand what you expect them to wear to work. After all, your employees are representatives of your business and a dress code not only ensures the right message is sent to clients, but provides for a cohesive look at your workplace, prevents uncomfortable situations and may be required to make your workplace safe for your employees and customers.

Is your business at risk without an employee handbook

Four Common Business Dress Codes

With more employers trading out suits for relaxed attire, the majority of today’s workers don’t understand what is acceptable to wear to work. For example, take the increasingly popular dress code business casual. It sounds like it should be straight forward but is as clear as mud for new hires. Or what about terms like “smart business attire” or simply “business attire”?

According to a SHRM survey, over 60 percent of businesses now allow business casual attire. That said, it still causes great confusion among employees and managers.

When defining your business’ dress code, it’s important to choose one that aligns with your company culture, then fully describe it in your employee handbook. Rather than only including what is acceptable, you should also give examples of what’s not appropriate. If it makes sense to have guidelines about piercings, excessive cologne and perfume, tattoos and/or extreme hair colors at your place of business, those should be included in your dress code policy as well. 

When Work Stinks: What Employers Need to Know

Let’s break down the four most common business dress codes. 

  • Business Formal. Elegant, conservative, polished and very professional. 
    • Men: Dark-colored suit, white or light-colored collared shirt, conservative tie, cufflinks, leather belt and dress shoes with conservative socks. 
    • Women: Dark-colored suit with a white or light-colored shirt or blouse and neutral-colored, closed-toe shoes. Skirts should be at knee length and pantyhose should be worn as the legs should never be bare.   
  • Business Professional. One step down from business formal. Also called Smart Business Attire or Smart Business Casual.
    • Men: Sports jacket with tie, dress pants, button-down collared shirt, leather dress shoes, conservative accessories
    • Women: Dress, dress pants, skirt, blouse, sweater, shirt, pantyhose, closed-toe shoes, conservative accessories. Skirts and dresses should always sit just above the knee or longer.
  • Business Casual. Often a source of confusion. While conservative suits can be left at home, this typically does not mean jeans and a T-shirt.
    • Men: Slacks, khaki pants, chino-style pants, polo-type shirts, button-down shirts including brightly colored and patterned, sweaters, vests, and loafers.
    • Women: Capris, dress pants, skirts, dresses, blouses, nice shirts, sweaters, closed or open-toed shoes, dressy sandals.
    • What It’s Not: When writing your dress code policy, sometimes it is easier to say what is not allowed, which is exactly what J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. did. You can view their dress code here. Generally, business casual is not jeans, T-shirts, overly tight or revealing clothing, athletic wear, beach-type clothing, flip flops, hoodies, hats, crop tops, visible undergarments, and torn clothing.

Employers are getting creative in order to attract talent in today’s competitive labor market and a casual dress code is one of the perks employees want.

  • Casual. For today’s relaxed, casual and informal work environment.
    • In a business casual environment, jeans are often only acceptable on approved “jeans day”, but in workplaces with casual dress codes, jeans are often worn every day, and by both men and women. Shirts aren’t required to have collars and can be anything in good taste. 
    • But even if your business embraces the popular casual dress code, it is still beneficial to have a dress code policy. Even with a dress code policy, your employees’ comfort and creativity can still be your chief concern. While most anything is appropriate in a relaxed, casual workplace, it helps to have a few common restrictions in place. Here’s what to consider listing as off-limits in your policy: 
      • Attire that would be suitable for the beach, yard work, to attend a nightclub or exercise in are not appropriate. 
      • Clothing should be clean - no torn, dirty or excessively wrinkled items.
      • Clothing with offensive or distracting words or pictures would remain out of the workplace. 
      • Overly revealing apparel exposing too much skin or undergarments is also inappropriate in the workplace.

Businesses that enforce an overly strict dress code risk losing out on top talent. Consider this — 79% of Millennials think they should be allowed to wear jeans to work at least sometimes.

New call-to-action

Religious Accommodations

Religious accommodations to the dress code policy should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. For example, some religious practices require individuals to wear head coverings or may prohibit them from wearing certain attire. Efforts to accommodate these requests should be made by the employer as long as the accommodation would not threaten the health, safety or security of the work environment, or come at an increased cost to the employer or substantial burden to the other employees.

Safety Concerns

Some policies aren’t in place solely to maintain a professional looking work environment. Consider policies about the management of long hair, piercings, jewelry, facial hair, loose-fitting clothing and more. Depending on your industry, you may be required to have certain dress and hygiene policies in place to protect your employees. For example, OSHA’s policies regarding facial hair and the use of respirators or those that safeguard workers using machinery. According to OSHA, workers should not wear loose-fitting clothing, jewelry, or other items that could become entangled in machinery, and long hair should be worn under a cap or otherwise contained to prevent entanglement in moving machinery.

Dress Code Enforcement

As a final note, your business’ dress codes policy must be clearly detailed in your employee handbook, easy to understand and managers should be trained to enforce it consistently across the entire team. If one employee is allowed to bend the rules, but another is disciplined, you could be putting your business at risk for claims of discrimination.

Subscribe to the Axcet Blog

Jeanette Coleman

Written by Jeanette Coleman