Professional Primer: How an employer should handle dress code

Written on Feb 09, 2017

By Jessica Salerno, OSCPA content manager

Professional Primer is our series to help you navigate the tricky world of business etiquette. Read past posts online here.

Although much of the discussion over dress codes concerns what employees should or should not do, if the policy is to be successful, it first must be communicated and enforced properly by the employer.

HoughK“How people look and feel in the office is a reflection of the organization’s culture, so the first thing we have to do is think about their culture and what they want to achieve,” said Karen Hough, owner and CEO of ImprovEdge.

Specificity is crucial, she said. Ideally you would be able to set general guidelines, but as your organization grows, or different people leave and come in, the dress code can start to become interpreted differently than the original intent.

Hough suggested telling possible scenarios to employees and giving them the choice to decide what is appropriate. For example, wearing more casual clothing when you aren’t seeing a client in the office might make sense, but people should remember clients sometimes stop in unexpectedly.

If your company is looking to throw out the dress code completely and start from scratch, there are a few ways to help encourage employees to embrace the new standards. To start, involve them in the process by gathering a diverse group together to learn what they would like to wear.

“The more you can include people in the organization to talk about what’s acceptable and what will work, I think that’s a good way to go,” Hough said. “It shows buy-in and that you listened. And say ‘We want to get your opinions, but understand management will make the final decision based on our understanding of our needs and our client environment.’”

Another thing to remember is what’s appropriate in your industry. Hough said you want to be looking as good as, if not better than, your competition, but to also make an effort to be a leader in your field. Consider the requests of diverse groups, such as younger people and the LGBTQ community.

Hough also said to avoid using the language of “man/woman” to define something in the dress code and stick to “masculine/feminine.”

“Certainly as we look at gender and the range that gender is covering, we want to be inclusive of people who might not consider themselves a man or a woman, or people who might interpret gender differently,” she said.

Stick to looking at the dress code from a high-level perspective, Hough advised, and don’t get wrapped up in small details.

“If you start worrying about hemlines, you’re not going to reflect who you are and that’s the point of having a dress code,” Hough said. “The point is to reflect who you are and your organization, and make your people as comfortable as possible.”

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  1. Susan Ross Wells | Feb 10, 2017

    Our firm Gilmore Jasion Mahler, LTD (offices in Maumee and Findlay) implemented a new "dress for your day" dress code several months ago. It has been a huge success with our people. Here's a blog article one of our tax associates wrote about the new policy. Definite win for us! -Susan Ross Wells, Marketing Manager, Gilmore Jasion Mahler, LTD.

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