How to Set a Dress Code for Your Business

by Kevin Casey on November 15, 2010
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Does your business have a dress code? If you’re wearing pajamas while reading this in your home office, probably not. But if you do business outside of the house — and especially if you have employees — workplace attire is a potentially thorny issue, perhaps more so now than ever.

I’ve worked in all kinds of environments, from the tragically casual start-up to the buttoned-up Fortune 500 firm. (And yes, on occasion, in pajamas in my home office.) If you ask me, professional attire should be a matter of common sense. But it seems everyone has at least one example of a coworker trampling common sense like herd of elephants chased by lions.

So how should small businesses handle workplace appearance? I punted the question over to the Evil HR Lady, Suzanne Lucas, a 10-year-veteran of corporate human resources and founder of Carnival of HR: When does a business need a dress code?

“Once you hire someone other than your spouse, it’s time to have a dress code,” she says. “I know that seems ridiculous, but there are too many people out there who are just clueless.”

The dress code should be in writing — otherwise it’s too difficult to enforce, says Lucas, whose work has been used in HR certification and management training courses across the country. She recommends these sample dress codes as models for writing your own. And once the policy is in place? Enforce it “consistently and every time there is a violation. Companies get in trouble when they let the thin, gorgeous woman wear a micro-mini skirt, but tell the overweight woman to keep her skirts down to her knees. If your dress code is reasonable to begin with, enforcing it is not generally a problem.”

You don’t need separate guidelines for men and women, according to Lucas, and problems on this front are unlikely to arise. You can take a gender-specific approach, though. “Just be careful that if you do separate it out by gender that there are equivalent requirements,” she says.

A dress code isn’t limited to clothing, either. Hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, jewelry, and other accessories are factors in today’s environment.

“They are a part of appearance, which is what dress codes are all about,” Lucas says. “Of course, you shouldn’t be ridiculous about it. Before you go banning something, think about if it really affects your business.”

In writing a dress code, common sense does count, as should industry and job function: Appearance might not matter the same in a landscaping business as in an accounting firm.

Put another way, Lucas asks: “If your employees never come face to face with a customer, does it really matter how many tattoos they have?”

Kevin Casey is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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