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Dress Code Policy: What is “Normal” Today?

HR Question:

My company is interested in updating the dress code policy.  What is “normal” today and are there any specific things I should keep in mind in making this update?

HR Answer:

Workplace appearance and grooming standards are nothing new. However, what they encompass continues to evolve as we consider cultural and generational needs and desires. Most companies have long created rules surrounding dress for employee safety (think manufacturing and healthcare), proper representation of company culture (think financial advisors / legal firms), or creating an overall “tone” for the workplace (think amusement parks / golf courses, etc.). Regardless of the reason, what we have seen is that the standards continue to become more relaxed, overall.

The Casual Movement

What started as “casual Fridays” has evolved to “casual summers,” which has now evolved to casual work environments all year round.  Over the past few years, we have seen companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Goldman Sachs, and even Target relax their dress code standards. And as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have spent a year or more working from home in more relaxed, comfy attire.

Fabrics are changing, expectations are shifting, and retailers are scrambling to meet the new blend of professional and comfortable styles. Many employers have adopted a “Dress for Your Day” approach, expecting employees to be able to read the needs of the situation – jeans for casual days, and more professional attire for client meetings.

Legal Considerations

As HR professionals, we must also consider potential legal issues with dress codes. Employers must be aware that dress, grooming, and appearance can conflict with an employee’s religious beliefs or traditions, ethnicity, national origin, gender identification, or even disability. For example, there may be clothing, hairstyles, facial hair, and tattoos that are in line with cultural beliefs, yet could be considered discriminatory. We must consider these regulations when we look to creating a policy for our company.  In addition, we must also look locally.  Today, some localities have specific anti-discrimination laws that can very easily impact dress code rules.  For example, the New York City Human Rights Law specifically states that it’s unlawful to have a dress code that prohibits natural hair or treated hair that closely associates with race or religion.

Embracing All Styles

In an HR Snapshot, the HR Support Center highlighted that “some states have made natural hairstyle discrimination illegal by amending their employment discrimination laws to specifically define race as including traits associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles. Protective hairstyles include (but aren’t limited to) afros, bantu knots, curls, braids, locs, and twists.” The goal of such laws is to encourage and celebrate natural hairstyles, while protecting those individuals who wear such hairstyles for a myriad of reasons, including “because they are easy, protective, or part of how they identify themselves.”

Overall, companies should look internally at what is NECESSARY for their environment. Yes, it may be important for your company to not allow certain types of dress for safety or industry-related reasons, but avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.  Make sure the policy meets the business need, complies with regulatory requirements (or accommodations are made), and that there is purpose for the requirement. Employers should only implement what is necessary and consider the creation of a respectful and inclusive workplace. Status quo will not suffice in today’s tough recruitment market and cultural revolution. As stated by Millennial and General Z speaker and generations expert, Ryan Jenkins,“’this is always how we’ve dressed'” is not an acceptable answer in today’s 21st-century workplace. Revisit your company dress code to ensure it is positioning you for next-generation growth and success.”

Special thanks to Patti Dunham, Samantha Osborne, and the HR Support Center for contributing to this edition of our HR Question of the Week. 

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