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Dress Code Policy: What is “Normal” Today?

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?

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.  What started as “casual Fridays” has evolved to “casual summers” which is now evolving 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. The Society for Human Resources Management reports in their 2018 Employee Benefit Survey that one-half (50%) of organizations reported allowing casual dress every day, up six percentage points since 2017 and 18 percentage points since 2014.  Yes, industry and geography have a large influence on the implementation of these changes but overall, regardless of these influences, we have all seen the dress code loosen over the past decade.

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 belief or traditions, ethnicity, national origin, gender identification, or even disability. Consider clothing, hairstyles, facial hair, and tattoos that may be in line with cultural beliefs and could be considered discriminatory for example.  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.  These things should be considered prior to implementation.

Overall, companies should look internally at what is NECESSARY for their environment.  Yes, it may be culturally important for your company to not allow certain types of dress 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.”

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