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What to wear: Look sharp with effective dress code policies

Posted April 10, 2017

By Michael Henckel, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

Many employers implement dress codes to present a professional atmosphere. With summer approaching, now is a good time to revisit your dress code policies to make sure they are in line with your expectations. Policies vary by employer or industry, so there are no hard and fast rules for developing a dress code policy. There are, however, considerations for creating dress codes as well as potential discrimination pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.

Dress code options

Variations in dress code policies include business formal, business casual, or casual (which could include a more relaxed dress code for summer). One challenge is creating a dress code that allows employees flexibility in their appearance but still allows the company to determine that a particular outfit is not acceptable in the workplace.

Listing every type of acceptable clothing may not be possible. Fortunately, concepts such as business casual are fairly well understood and allow for more general guidelines. A dress code policy might, therefore, give examples but refrain from listing every possible outfit. A few examples might include:

  • Dress pants, or dresses and skirts that extend below the knee, are acceptable attire. Jeans are allowed only on casual Fridays unless the nature of the job allows for an exception (i.e., employees who perform manual labor might not be required to wear dress pants).
  • Business casual shirts (such as button-down shirts for men), blouses, or similar attire are required. Employees are not allowed to wear T-shirts.
  • Shoes must be appropriate for the work environment. Footwear such as “flip flop” sandals are an example of unacceptable footwear.

By providing examples, you communicate guidelines but retain the right to determine that a particular type or style of clothing is not acceptable, even if the outfit is not specifically listed. Providing a list of prohibited clothing items is generally also acceptable.

Note that some companies need to restrict the type of clothing that can be worn for safety reasons (such as loose-fitting clothing that could be caught in machinery). While safety is a vital concern for clothing restrictions, these restrictions don’t generally bring up the same issues as a general dress code.

Concerns over discrimination

Generally, dress codes with differing requirements for men and women are not necessarily discriminatory. For example, you can allow only women to wear sandals or earrings, but not allow these items to be worn by men.

Personal appearance, however, can become the subject of a discrimination complaint. Some religions require particular items of clothing. For example, an employee’s religious practice might include the wearing of a Muslim hijab, a Christian cross, or a Sikh turban. Other religious practices forbid women from wearing pants. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employee religious beliefs, and you are obligated to provide an accommodation (such as an exception to a dress code) as long as it does not create an undue hardship.

State laws also provide protections for employees. In California, employees may not be required to wear pants (for example, women must be allowed to wear dresses or skirts unless there is a legitimate reason to prohibit them). In the District of Columbia, employers may not discriminate based on “personal appearance.” In this case, “personal appearance” includes manner or style of dress, and manner or style of personal grooming (such as hair length and beards).

While laws may place some restrictions on your policy, for the most part, you have the freedom to create a dress code policy as you see fit to maintain your desired level of professionalism. In creating the policy, give employees guidelines for appropriate attire and give supervisors and managers clear parameters for regulating dress in your workplace.

About the author:

Michael Henckel

Michael Henckel is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, a nationally recognized compliance resource company that offers products and services to address the range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. Henckel specializes in topics such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, employee classification, and compensation. He is the author of J. J. Keller’s FSLA Essentials guidance manual. For more information, visit