What Not to Wear – To Work

It’s summertime in California and that means flip flops, shorts, and tank tops. Unfortunately, when the weather heats up, employees can be tempted to show up for work wearing attire that seems more appropriate for the beach than the office.

In this episode of The Workplace, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank is joined by employment law expert Jennifer Shaw to discuss what steps employers can take to ensure that employees are appropriately dressed and groomed for their work environment. The two share some humorous anecdotes about enforcing a dress code at work.

Employees Should Dress for What They Do

What people wear to work can affect productivity and the image of a company. Enforcing a written dress code can be difficult if employers focus too much on the details.

Shaw recommends thinking about the focus of your business when establishing a dress code. For example, if employees work in an office environment, attire would be different than for employees who work outside.

“Part of it is not judging, but being able to step back and say ‘OK, what is this person supposed to do all day?’” says Shaw.

Also, it is important to remember that the dress code in every workplace will vary based on the expectations of the employees.

Rather than having an in-depth description of how employees should dress, such as wearing pantyhose, specifying how many inches a skirt should be from the knees or how an employee should style his/her hair, Shaw says, “the dress code should be: dress appropriately for your position.”

During the discussion, Frank stresses that just because someone may be wearing something that you may not wear, it does not mean the attire is inappropriate. Employers should ask themselves whether they are judging someone because the person is not fitting a “mold” or because the individual is dressed inappropriately, Frank says.

When an employee is dressed inappropriately, it is crucial for employers to speak up.

“If you don’t say something, you are creating a problem for your other employees,” Shaw tells Frank.

Talking to employees when they are dressing inappropriately ensures the workplace is a safe and comfortable environment for everyone.

Religious, Cultural Considerations

Sometimes there are cultural or religious reasons behind attire. In California, there are religious and grooming protection laws that employers should be aware of, Frank says.

For example, Abercrombie & Fitch fell into legal trouble years ago for refusing to hire a woman who wore a headscarf because the look was not “true to their brand.”

“Any time we are talking about ‘fitting in,’ or saying something ‘is or is not brand sensitive,’ the hair on the back of my neck stands up,” Shaw says. “A lot of times those are buzzwords for ‘I just don’t like what’s going on.’”

Times Change How We Dress

As fashions come and go, employees may want to dress in a more contemporary style, and it is important for employers to be flexible. Tattoos are an especially difficult part of the dress code. As they become increasingly popular, it is hard for employers to ban tattoos altogether.

“We have to think about, ‘what is the substance of the tattoo?’” says Shaw. “We can’t be content specific. What it is really about is what is the picture? What are we looking at?”

When it comes to the substance of the tattoo, employers should think about whether the image would be offensive if it were hung on the wall, Shaw recommends.

“It’s the gray area that gets really tricky, and I know that a lot of employers will have blanket policies that require tattoos to be covered up,” adds Frank.

In addition to tattoos, people have begun dressing more casually in the workplace. The fallout of this, says Shaw, is that behavior has also become more relaxed.

“Studies have shown when we dress down, our behavior also comes down,” says Shaw.

Overall, it is crucial for employees to consider wearing attire that is consistent with their work responsibilities.

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