HR Mistake Of The Week: When Dress Codes Go Wrong

Should your office’s dress code be based on common sense, or should it spell out exact skirt lengths and ban certain kinds of sweaters? At their best, dress codes help employees understand what kind of professional atmosphere your office wants to maintain. But when HR gets overly interested in mandating employee appearances, they can look a bit like a bridezilla demanding that all 17 of her bridesmaids wear identical shoes and jewelry and dye their hair to match. Then there are the bosses who mandate “mini-skirt Mondays” — that’s a whole other problem.

Here’s how Robin Schooling puts it in a smart post today over at Women of HR:

Sadly, in many organizations, when faced with conundrums such as: “How do I tell Sally she needs to wear a bra?” (answer: “Hey Sally, you need to wear a bra.”) or “What are we going to do so that Bob irons his shirts? (answer: “Hey Bob, iron your shirts.”), the easy lazy answer has always been “Let’s write a dress code policy!”

Schooling writes that she used to work for a financial company whose five-page dress code went into incredible detail. The code banned items from cardigans to skirts with pockets on the back, and forbid women who worked with the all-male executive team from wearing pants at all, since “the gals needed to remember their place in the hierarchy.”

But when dress codes get really detailed, they can lead to lawsuits. A woman in Texas is suing because she says her boss fired her when she refused to dye her hair. And in 2010, a Muslim woman sued Disney for discrimination when they repeatedly sent her home without pay when she refused to take off her headscarf while on the job at a Chip ‘N Dale-themed restaurant. “It has to do with the costume, every role at Disneyland Resort has a specific costume,” a spokeswoman said at the time.

Then there are the dress codes that are nothing more than thinly veiled sexual harassment. A woman in Salt Lake City sued her former employer last year after being sent a memo outlining a Monday-Friday dress code that included “Mini-skirt Monday,” “Tube-top Tuesday,” “Wet T-shirt Wednesday,” “No bra Thursday” and “Bikini top Friday.” If you need to be told not to do this, you have bigger problems than writing an employee handbook.

Of course, even vaguely written dress code guidelines can be problematic. Schooling writes of another code that indicated “Men Should Look Nice” and “Women Should Look Pretty.” I understand what that code is going for: It’s meant to be general enough to allow for some latitude, but still provide an idea of how employees should present themselves on the job. But surely both men and women can be asked to look “nice.” Being “pretty” is beside the point; that’s about attractiveness, not presentability. I’d settle for a dress code that just reads, “Pull yourself together!”

Next week: Tips on crafting a dress code that works — without inviting a lawsuit.

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