Here's How to Reestablish Your Failed Dress Code Policy

To reestablish a dress code, form a cross-functional team to develop a simple dress code.
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Policy implementation can fail for many reasons. One of the most difficult policies to introduce, implement and integrate is a dress code. Whenever an employer attempts to legislate anything that is near and dear to the heart of employees, such as how they dress for work, widespread commitment is necessary, or the policy will fail.

Policies fail when:

  • widespread belief about the need for the policy doesn't exist,
  • they are adopted to address the behavior of a few employees,
  • they are perceived as owned by Human Resources instead of by line management,
  • they allow no or insufficient management discretion,
  • commitment to enforcing the policy is a low priority, and
  • they are inconsistently administered and followed.

Reader Question About Reestablishing a Dress Code

This question appears in my inbox so frequently that I thought I'd share my typical response.

Reader Question: We are a small- to mid-sized company (around 120 employees) and have a business casual dress policy here. This was instituted approximately six years ago and prior to that there was no formal policy on dress. We had people coming in - literally - in pajamas and bedroom slippers.

So, now we have a highly detailed dress code with regulations on the number of inches above the knee that skirts will be deemed acceptable to the number of inches straps must be, due primarily to the lack of good judgment that was shown when there was no written policy. I know you are a proponent of a vague dress code, but what do you suggest that we do when employees exercise poor judgment when dressing for work without strict guidelines?

The president of our company is not at all on board with enforcing the dress code here - he thinks it's a total waste of time, so we're beginning to run into a situation where (managers in particular) are saying to HR, "What are you going to do? Send me home?" They know that to upper management, the dress code is nowhere on the priority list.

We want to loosen and simplify the dress code so that we're not wasting time figuring out if someone is in violation with a dress that is three inches above the knee vs. two - yes, this is happening. (Those who have been given dress code warnings now tattle and make sure that everyone is following the policy to the letter.) Yet, we don't want to go back to such a vague dress code that we go back to where things were.

To respond to this frequently asked question, here are tips about how to reestablish a dress code that has failed.

My Response: You have hit upon exactly the reason why I prefer looser dress codes. If you write a detailed policy, you have to police it. And, your management is reacting just as expected. In the list of things that they have to accomplish, the dress code ranks low.

In fact, because of their fear that it will demotivate and annoy employees, they are even less likely to enforce it. When the person in charge does not support it, all of this is predictable, I am sorry to say. All of this, as you have described, leads to all sorts of additional, dysfunctional behavior like your tattlers.

I also believe in having as few policies as possible and never in creating a policy to manage the behavior of a few employees. You are much better off addressing unprofessional dress or behavior as it occurs than to subject your professionally dressed, positive employees to a policy.

In your situation, because of all of this background, I would put together a cross-functional team of employees, that includes managers, to redo the dress code so that it becomes a guideline that you don't need to police. For example, no three inches above anything.

Perhaps you can ban specific items such as jeans, sun dresses, pajamas, running and biking attire, without creating rules that are so tight that employees resist or mess up. It needs to highlight that you expect employees to dress professionally and to exhibit professional judgment in the clothes they wear to work. (Here are my thoughts about business casual, since that is your desired dress code.)

Then, you can republish the dress code policy with some across-the-company support. Have everyone sign it. Then, address problems as they occur. The policy must be simple and allow managerial discretion vs. inches from the knee.

In one company, I had the HR group work with a couple of local stores to put on a fashion show for the demographic the company employed at the workplace. The stores also offered an employee discount for employees who attended. I've had other employers post pictures of appropriate dress to help employees understand expectations.

Here are my business casual and casual dress code policies. You may also want to decide which direction you need to move toward in your workplace. In my company, we used to have a business casual policy until my employees asked why.

Since we don't see customers often on site anymore, we really had no good reason for a business casual policy. So now our company policy is casual.

These are all of your options for various dress codes.

Additional Resources about Dress Codes