Running Your Business

How to Define and Enforce an Office Dress Code That’s Fair to All


  • Generational and cultural standards may influence an office dress code

  • Your brand is represented, to some degree, by what workers wear

  • Guidelines should be clear, and workplace safety and industry requirements should be prioritized

Posted by January 21, 2020

Notions of an appropriate office dress code have evolved over the decades. Even businesses that once enforced a strict shirt-and-tie policy are now allowing more comfortable ensembles and encouraging individual expression.

But how can employers in various industries handle requests for a casual dress policy? And should the trends appearing within generational groups affect your policy? Consider defining your dress code with these strategies so that everyone’s on the same page about what to wear to work.

Understand the Current Culture

Though companies shouldn’t bend to every new fad, it makes sense to be aware of what current culture says about fashion. For instance, millennials tend to favor more casual work clothing, and a company with a young workforce may thrive with a laid-back dress code.

You shouldn’t feel pressure to accommodate trends that are unprofessional or unsafe for the workplace, but do be mindful of the clothes sold in today’s workwear departments. Align your workplace needs with the wardrobes that are made and sold today; meeting your office dress code shouldn’t require the purchase of outdated or ill-fitting attire.

Keep Your Brand in Mind

Meeting your workers halfway will require deeply understanding the message your company is trying to send to the outside world. How would someone describe your brand based on the clothes your employees wear? Does it send a negative message? Is it inconsistent with your work culture?

Though employees may appreciate flexibility, office dress code standards should still be established. For starters, consider how formal your employees’ attire should be to remain on-brand for your business, and then use that as a baseline.

Determine How Duties Affect Dress

Function should influence your dress code more so than fashion. For instance, a restaurant or factory worker will need to follow OSHA personal protective equipment guidelines, which prohibit them from wearing open-toed shoes or jewelry that can get caught in equipment. Of course, many of these restrictions don’t apply to, say, a bank or advertising agency.

Determine early on which parts of the dress code are requirements and which are merely a tradition or personal preference. Though you can still keep some wants on the list, they should never overshadow the required dress rules.

Practice Inclusion

Consider if the dress code alone is discouraging top talent from joining your organization or moving up to leadership roles. The office dress code shouldn’t be cost-prohibitive to new professionals or those from disadvantaged backgrounds, nor should it interfere with people’s religious practice. Work uniforms should accommodate all body types.

Though it may be impossible to please everyone on your team, unreasonable workplace clothing rules have the potential to discourage qualified candidates. Consider providing a variety of uniform styles to choose from, or giving a clothing stipend as a hiring incentive or a reward for completed milestones or performance goals.

Define the Language

It’s up to you to make sure employees understand what the rules really mean. If you include wording such as “clean” or “short,” be prepared to further explain how these terms apply to your specific workplace, as they will be open to wide interpretation. To minimize confusion—and potentially awkward violation meetings—be clear what you expect when communicating the dress code, especially if brand reputation is at the heart of your policies.

An office dress code can say a lot about the type of company you run. With these tips, and a little bit of calibrating for the times as you go, you can ensure your policy is fair and understood by your entire workforce.

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