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Dress code policy: How to set and enforce standards


We all have a look.

For some, it’s carefully cultivated. For others, it’s accidental and disheveled. Sometimes it’s deliberately designed to grab the attention of others, perhaps even to shock them.

How you dress, how you style and color your hair, how much jewelry you wear and where you choose to put it, it accumulates to deliver a message: “This is who I am.”

That’s why a dress code policy is an important aspect of your employee handbook.

When establishing a dress code for employees, you should strive to strike a balance. You don’t want to strip a worker’s ability to express who they are, but you want your employee’s appearance to convey confidence and professionalism to your customers, clients and the general public.

Making a strong first impression

Business owners have a legitimate interest in requiring that employees, especially public-facing ones, look like someone the customer can be comfortable talking to, asking for help and making a transaction. That’s why some employers require a uniform that promotes a team atmosphere.

Once you’ve decided to hire a job applicant, you don’t want to turn around and tell them, “By the way, you can’t look like you anymore.” Just as your employees make a first impression with clothing and grooming, you should try to make a good first impression by helping them understand why the dress code is important and ultimately beneficial.

Those impressions begin to form during the interview when you meet an applicant.

Ask yourself what is more important:

  • What the prospect is wearing, or
  • If they come to the interview prepared and on time

Keep in mind that the applicant’s outfit might be directly tied to their financial reality and not a reflection of their work ethic or ability to do the job.

That interview also affords you the first opportunity to explain your dress code policy, and then the ball is in the candidate’s court.

If they’re applying for a retail sales position but dislike the solid-color polo and khakis, then they have that information early in the process and can add that to the list of reasons to consider the job.

Substantive and specific

If your employee handbook doesn’t already include a dress code, stop reading this now (temporarily, of course) and start developing one immediately.

A clearly worded dress code policy provides:

  • Understanding of what is or isn’t acceptable attire for the workplace, including:
  • A path to address dress code violations
  • Clearly defined consequences for not following it

Managers in your organization can use that handbook section to be consistent on this issue and reduce the likelihood of negative repercussions or reactions.

When creating the policy, seek input from people in your organization from all ages and backgrounds.

The dress code should be:

  • Consistent with your company’s culture
  • In line with the level of comfort and care that clients expect
  • Not tone deaf to changing standards and cultural trends

While some company policies get specific about the length of shorts, dresses and other attire, avoid being so rigorous with enforcement that you come off as unreasonable and damage your relationship with your employees.

Sensitive and sensible

More than anything, you want to make sure everyone gets treated the same. It’s essential no one gets singled out or receives special treatment.

Put yourself in the eccentric shoes of the person in question and ask yourself, how much attention do you want to draw to yourself and to the employee?

Consider that:

  • A company that develops a reputation for being rigid or overbearing about their dress code policy may chase away qualified future applicants, especially those in the younger generation.
  • Certain items of clothing, tattoos or hairstyles may have significance to religious beliefs or other legally protected matters.
  • We’re in an era where gender stereotypes are crumbling. The dress code shouldn’t make a woman or a man feel self-conscious for wearing something acceptable even if it may be unconventional.If a female employee wants to wear a jacket and tie, or a male employee wants to wear a blouse, that’s their right to express themselves through their wardrobe choices.
  • Disabilities might play a role in how an employee dresses. A worker with, for example, a scar or a prosthetic limb might want to wear something to conceal that even if it contradicts the dress code.

If it’s technically not allowed, but is in no way impacting the employee’s ability to do their job as described, show some leeway and avoid the potential of a PR disaster and maybe even a lawsuit.

Overall, a dress code gives you a chance to build a culture of inclusiveness and identify your company as welcoming. Employees who feel accepted for who they are will be more motivated to perform well and remain with that organization.

Resolution, not confrontation

Occasionally, you may face the following situation:

  1. An employee simply ignores the dress code.
  2. Their actions are negatively impacting their job performance or the performance of those around them.

Your initial conversation with this employee should be quick, private and clear.

Let’s say your employee, Tom, who works the front desk and greets clients, wears a concert T-shirt to work when the dress code policy requires him to wear a polo or button-down shirt. One of the clients complains. Here is a fair, professional way to address it.

  1. Invite Tom to join you in a room for a private meeting.
  2. Ask him if he’s aware that his T-shirt violates the company dress code.
  3. Inform Tom that a customer complained, and that you rely on Tom to make a positive, professional impression.
  4. Tell Tom that this meeting serves only as a verbal warning, that he’s not to wear T-shirts to work and that you trust there won’t be a need to have any meetings like this again.
  5. Once Tom returns to his desk, document the meeting.

Ideally this meeting will make it clear to Tom that the dress code is to be taken seriously, but that you are bringing it to his attention with only a verbal warning, so he has the opportunity to ensure no additional discipline is required.

Also, take into consideration the circumstances. If the employee is a consistent rule breaker, then having a witness is probably wise. If this is a minor occurrence for an otherwise reliable, productive employee, then having a witness might actually be detrimental to your relationship. Context matters.

Gender differences

In the event that the dress code violation features an article of clothing that is too revealing, exercise caution and be aware of optics and potential legal fallout.

If you’re a male supervisor with a female subordinate, ask a female coworker to act as the observer. In fact, prior to taking any action, you might ask that female coworker for her opinion to see if she shares your sense that the clothing isn’t appropriate.

Depending on the violation and your comfort level, consider having another manager of the same gender confront the employee in question. Although this is an option, it’s typically best handled by yourself or by your human resources representative. Gender shouldn’t matter under general conflicts.

Before you speak to the employee, ask yourself, “Did I look at this from all perspectives?” and “Do I feel comfortable explaining to someone else why I am taking this action?”

If the answer to both is yes, then proceed. As in the previous example, document everything with a witness.

Casual (Fri-) days

If your employees find your expected attire cumbersome, then it may be best to offer an occasional casual day to give them an opportunity to be more relaxed.

Casual days can also be an inviting benefit for potential candidates who make company culture a top priority.

When it’s necessary to terminate someone

If employees continue to break your dress code policy after you’ve addressed the problem several times, then it may be best to part ways. But this should only happen under the most extreme circumstances.

Before you terminate an employee, talk to your legal counsel to ensure you’re not putting your business at risk.

Are HR issues like these slowing down your business? Download our free e-book, 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them, to help you avoid some of the common pitfalls involved with running a business.