What not to wear: Are dress codes out-of-fashion?

A former male colleague once had the unenviable task of addressing a highly uncomfortable issue: confronting one of his employees about her excessive use of perfume. He’d avoided the conversation for weeks, months even. But he couldn’t duck it forever: everyone in the surrounding office area begged him to talk to her. Cheap cologne – the kind that triggers asthma symptoms and makes one desperate for a nearby open window – hung about the cramped shared workspace like an invisible accessory. The employee was a smoker, so the collective theory was that her sense of smell was compromised and she had no idea she was over-spritzing. Whatever the cause, the cloying stench in the air had reached maximum effluvium and intervention was needed.

Her manager quietly sought advice from Human Resources about how to handle this delicate subject. He also checked in with peers for their input on diplomatic ways to drop this (stink) bomb on the oblivious employee. All counsel advised focusing on staying away from anything that smelled of a personal “you use too much perfume” attack, and instead making it about health and her co-workers’ respiratory concerns. clothespegWhen he’d prepared (and procrastinated) all he could, he invited the uber-pungent woman into his office for the talk.

To say it went down poorly would be an understatement: she was devastated. She denied her perfume use was excessive. She raged. She sobbed. It was a gong show. The well-rehearsed manager was stunned by her reaction, caught completely off-guard. In an ironic twist to the story, the perfume problem ended because the employee went on a long-term stress leave shortly afterwards.

Many organizations have established scent-free workplace policies to address the health concerns, so it’s unlikely that what happened in my workplace those many years ago would be such an issue today. But, I flashed back to that incident recently when my colleague, Dene Rossouw, and I ran one of our business writing workshops. An HR manager – let’s call her Claire – was a participant. Claire had taken on a big, hairy project: drafting a dress code for her organization.

With the onset of warmer weather, she and her colleagues were frustrated to witness employees shedding the layers. Staff were taking  advantage of the loosely-written, seldom-followed policy to write their own rules. If bare legs and bare arms are allowed, why not bare backs or bellies? Flip-flops, shorts and crop tops – of course! The employees’ disregard for professionalism was swiftly followed by a surge of SOS calls from supervisors, imploring HR to provide explicit direction on what’s acceptable and what’s not.

A tall order, but Claire was determined to tackle this prickly issue. The dress code guidelines clearly would require more than a day’s worth of workshop effort, but she was eager to get it started.

We helped Claire organize her thoughts but as the hours ticked by, she got increasingly more discouraged as she waded further into the murky subject. She knew managers wanted specificity but she struggled with defining how short is too short or how clingy is too clingy? At every turn, she faced the challenge of clarifying what was and wasn’t acceptable in a way that wouldn’t be open to too much leeway in interpretation.

dressdownpolicyWhen the line blurs between appropriate business and weekend casual, managers find themselves the reluctant enforcers of company dress policies. My experience – both as a manager and as someone who worked for many years in organizations – was that these conversations pretty much topped the list of “things I really, really don’t want to talk to an employee about” – along with other highly personal topics like body odour and piercings.

I turned to a former VP of Human Resources I once worked with and asked her opinion. She responded, “Dress codes are thorny issues. It’s one of the worst of all assignments. I’d take doing a termination over having to develop a dress code!” While most people agree that employees in customer facing roles represent the company brand, coming up with guidelines is tricky. She went on to say, “Too much skin is usually the one common agreement – e.g. no spaghetti straps, cleavage, bare shoulders, short shorts, backless. ‘Dress appropriately’ is just way tooooo vague.” And as Claire discovered, managers demanded a lot more support from HR. They wanted to be able to say, “I’m just enforcing this company rule here: see?”

 It’s a topical issue: just this month, Starbucks revised its dress-code guidelines to reflect the changing times. They announced they are loosening their employee dress code to give staff more flexibility to express their individuality. Customers will still see their barista wearing the signature green apron but now employees can also “don brightly-dyed hair and coloured, patterned clothing… knitted beanies, fedoras and other suitable hats in brown, grey or black. Scarves, neckties and colourful socks have also been given the OK.” According to a Starbucks spokesperson, the same standard of professionalism will still apply. No ripped jeans, dirty clothes or midriff tops.

necktiesThen there’s the dress policy that basically says to employees, “For Pete’s sake: use your common sense.” A Utah loan company called Lendio, fed up with enforcing strict company attire policies, ditched them entirely and implemented the cheekily termed, “Make Your Brain Use Good Judgment” dress code. It reads in part: Typically, professional individuals have a brain and are at least borderline intelligent. Our dress code requires you to use the best judgment your brain can calculate to determine whether something you want to wear is appropriate for the workplace. For example, most rational people agree that wearing T-shirts with obscenities or clothes with holes next to private body parts isn’t appropriate.”

Liz Ryan, CEO of Human Workplace, agrees but sticks it to managers with a tough love message. In her LinkedIn post, “Ten Stupid Rules that Drive Great Employees Away” (one of which is work attire), she says, “We write dress code policies because we’d die of embarrassment having to talk to an employee face-to-face about his or her excessively club-by or beach-y attire. Too bad for us. We’re managers, and sticky human topics are part of the job. Get rid of the insultingly detailed dress code policy and simply remind your employees to dress for business. You can add, ‘If you’re on the fence about whether or not to wear a particular ensemble or article of clothing to work, err on the side of caution and don’t wear it.’”

 So, back to Claire and her dress code despair. If neither common sense nor measuring-the-mini-skirt extremes work, she could always try Google’s approach. Their official dress code is “you must wear clothes.”

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