What Not to Wear This Summer (At Work)

Don’t leave employees guessing as to what’s acceptable under the summer dress code

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. June 12, 2017

Summer dress code policies should encourage workers to wear comfortable clothing, which will boost morale, but should also include specific examples of what's inappropriate to make sure employees don't offend others or lose clients.

"A summer dress code policy should strive to strike a balance between employee comfort, health and safety, and business needs," said Seth Neulight, an attorney with Nixon Peabody in San Francisco. People use clothing "as a means of personal expression or self-identity," he noted. So, "it is not enough to require that employees use good judgment or state that they may dress in business casual attire." Rather, any policy should clearly define key terms using gender-neutral language and specific examples.

He listed the following examples of appropriate summer attire:

  • Short-sleeved shirts.
  • T-shirts (solid color only).
  • Tennis shoes.
  • Jeans (clean and not torn).
  • Midthigh-length shorts.

Neulight said the following are inappropriate:

  • Tank top shirts.
  • T-shirts with logos.
  • Swimsuits.
  • Cutoff or ripped shorts.
  • Flip-flops or open-toed sandals or shoes.

Most organizations permit jeans and denim dresses year-round, said Philippe Weiss, an attorney and managing director with Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago, which provides compliance strategy and communications training. Overly revealing or overly snug clothes should be avoided, he said.

Depending on the industry and type of business, employees in client-facing positions may be expected to dress differently than those in back-office administrative jobs, Neulight noted.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Dress and Appearance]

In addition, employees in potentially hazardous conditions such as manufacturing may have specific dress requirements imposed by occupational safety and health laws. These statutes require certain classes of workers to wear personal protective equipment, reflective clothing and/or steel-toed safety boots.

Infringement of Dress Codes

When there are summer dress code violations, conversations about the infractions can be awkward. "If an employee is not just 'too casual' but is actually exposing too much flesh, then the employer might want to start with a discreet conversation with the individual—hopefully by a supervisor or manager of the same sex as the employee, because that can be a very embarrassing conversation—with some clear-cut guidelines about how to avoid issues in the future," said Robin Shea, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The supervisor or manager may specify during the conversation, for example, that "necklines must be no lower than 1 1/2 inches below the neck" or "skirts must be no shorter than 1 inch above the knee."

On a first offense, the employee simply might be asked why the violation occurred. The question is whether the employee thought what he or she wore was in compliance or just didn't give it any thought, explained Christine Walters, J.D., SHRM-SCP, an independent consultant with FiveL Co. in Westminster, Md. "A second violation may likely warrant some level of corrective action," she said.

The dress code policy should state that the company reserves the right to request that employees who violate the policy's standards will be sent home to change their attire, Neulight said. The changing time can be unpaid for hourly, nonexempt employees.

But if an exempt employee is sent home, he or she still must be paid his or her guaranteed minimum salary for that day, "so you are effectively paying for the time the employee spends to go home, change and return to work," Walters said.

Floating Casual Day or Casual Friday

Having a casual-dress policy for an entire season might not be a good fit for some organizations. They instead might try having a floating casual day or casual Fridays.

With a floating casual day, employees may choose which day of the week they want to dress casually. "The nice thing about choice of the day is it gives people the opportunity to use their judgment," Weiss said. And the employer can address violations of the dress policy incrementally rather than all at once if just one day a week is designated as the casual day, he added.

However, Shea said that "letting each employee decide which day will be casual strikes me as impractical and chaotic for supervisors. I think it is more practical to simply designate a day of the week for casual attire—traditionally, Fridays."

If the employer has a summer work schedule with Fridays off, the casual day could be moved to Thursday or Monday for the summer, Shea said. "I like the idea of having it tied to the weekend because I think psychologically it is a nice extension of the weekend to be able to dress casually at the end of the workweek. Of course, if employees do not work a Monday-Friday schedule, the employer could consider having it be the day before the individual employee's 'weekend' begins."


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