The Touchy Subject of Dress Codes and Conduct

Jun 1, 2016

When dealing with employees who are relatively new to work – from their first part-time job to their first full-time opportunity, it’s vitally important to clarify your expectations for professionalism on the front-end before hiring them.

Don’t expect them to know what you mean when you say “appropriate attire” or “look like a pro.” That leaves the door wide open for them to put their own unique flair on those terms — and their definitions will not be in alignment with yours.

When addressing something as important and as touchy and controversial as a dress code, don’t simply describe it verbally or expect them to read it in the company handbook.

dress code cartoonInstead, show photographs of employees dressed and groomed exactly the way your policy dictates. Ask each candidate if they’d have any trouble adhering to these guidelines without any personal modifications. Have them sign off on it to verify their understanding. This prevents any employee from playing the “Oops, I didn’t know” card. Clarity during hiring and onboarding becomes the ounce of prevention that is worth the pound of cure.

Explain the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’

Tell your new recruits how your dress code and your workplace conduct code came to be, how often it’s reviewed, and the process for amending any part of it. Some companies enlist the opinions of their people when establishing these guidelines to combat concerns that employees have no say in these important decisions. That may seem like overkill to you, but it will speak volumes to your employees and let them know that you take workplace appearance and professional behavior very seriously.

Whenever possible, include the context and reasoning for your expectations:

Our patients and their families frequently comment on the neat and clean appearance of our hospital staff. They say that it makes us look as if we are one unified team working together to provide the best possible care for our patients, and that our staff’s appearance gives them confidence in the cleanliness of our hospital.

and  or:

You know, when I’m out with the guys at a cage-fighting match, I get carried away and my language can get awfully colorful. But we’re trying hard to distance ourselves from that kind of mob scene and maintain a respectful, professional environment around here. It gives our brand a certain cache that separates us from our competitors. So please refrain from any words that you wouldn’t use around your grandmother’s table on Thanksgiving. Okay?

There is a time to wear a coat and tie and a time to wear a t-shirt and flip flops. Even casual Fridays have limits.

Every grade school kid knows that if they sign up for a part in a play, they are expected to dress and act the part or the role they are playing. Unfortunately, many grow into their teens and twenties without ever being informed that when they accept a job, they are expected to dress and act the part of the employee and wear the “costume” the way it appears in the script.

While these important distinctions should have been taught at home, it’s today’s managers who have been tasked with pointing out to their employees the clear line that exists between professional attire and conduct and matters of personal style and expression.