Employees Dressing Too Casually? Clarify Your Dress Code

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 14, 2016
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  • It's summertime and the living is easy. Employees want to be comfortable, but even in an increasingly informal work environment, HR professionals should advise them to back away from these top summer wardrobe missteps that OfficeTeam has identified.

  • Maintain a professional look and keep the baseball caps, fedoras, pork pie hats and straw trilbys at home. Sloppy or unkempt hair also is a no-no at work.

  • Flip flops aren't just for the beach anymore, but that doesn’t mean they’re OK for work. Boat shoes and sneakers also may be borderline, knee-high gladiator sandals likely are too “out there” to be acceptable at work, and some formal environments may look askance at open-toed shoes.

  • Hawaiian shirts and other loud prints are a little too casual for most offices, as is the unbuttoned look. Also be cautious about wearing untucked shirts in the workplace.

  • The call for transparency doesn’t extend to your work attire. Undergarments under sheer fabrics keep you from sharing too much with colleagues, clients and customers.

  • Stay away from extreme lengths and save the maxi- and mini-skirts for after work. And while sundresses can be comfortable and colorful, wearing them could be a major fashion faux pas in some organizations.

  • Shorts may be tolerated in less formal work environments, but they’re not acceptable in many offices so be sure to check your company’s dress code. The prohibition on shorts may include longer Bermuda shorts.

  • It’s one thing to wear sunglasses for work when that work takes you outside. If you’re inside, take the sunglasses off.

  • Tank tops, halter tops, tube tops and apparel that is strapless or has spaghetti straps go beyond that casual vibe and can look unprofessional.

Flip flops. Sunglasses. Bermuda shorts. Baseball cap. Nope, it’s not a list of vacation clothes to pack but the clothing and accessories more employees are wearing to work during the summer months.

Workers are dressing more casually than they did five years ago, according to an OfficeTeam survey of 306 senior managers with 20 or more office workers in the U.S. The biggest complaint, cited by 47 percent, was workers sporting overly casual clothing, and nearly one-third (32 percent) said that employees show too much skin.

What employees choose to wear can impact an organization’s image and, in some cases, pose safety hazards. Additionally, a lack of clothing can also be distracting to clients and co-workers.

“I had to ask one employee to wear a bra” or otherwise cover up “to keep from distracting the male employees who were complaining about her bralessness,” Nedalee Thomas, CEO of California-based Chanson Water USA Inc., told SHRM Online.

“Another female employee was fond of wearing long skirts without a slip,” under the diaphanous material, Thomas recalled. “I requested that she wear a slip.”

The industry, region of the country and company culture play a part in how much leeway an employer allows in its dress code.

Kenda Fink, SHRM-CP, noted that when she worked at a medical billing company, sleeveless dress shirts and dressy flip flops were permitted. Neither are allowed at her current employer, a construction company in Lincoln, Neb., where she works as an HR compliance specialist. The dress code “definitely is defined by your culture,” she said in a Society for Human Resource Management LinkedIn discussion.

Educating Employees

What is meant by “business casual” isn’t often clear. This typically includes khakis, cotton trousers and skirts, blouses and polo shirts, pullover sweaters and cardigans—and in some places it can also mean that T-shirts, jeans and sneakers are acceptable, according to OfficeTeam.

“Employees should take their cues from company guidelines and what others in the office are wearing,” advised Brandi Britton, a district president for OfficeTeam, in a news release. “A casual dress code doesn't mean that anything goes.”

Chery O’Malley works in the Greenville, S.C., area as a training and development specialist at aeSolutions.

“We wear business casual, and sometimes people think that means jeans and a hoodie or spaghetti-strap dress,” she said. When the seasons change, her employer puts a dress code reminder in the company’s timesheet tool that employees must access.

American Buildings Co. in La Crosse, Va., issues a reminder to supervisors and managers, asking them to frame the company’s policy in a way that does not single out individuals, according to Cindy Kirby, the company’s HR coordinator.

“Keeping the focus on the business aspects and expectations, without targeting specific styles or people, allows for each person to consider how they can present their contribution and individuality within the accepted framework,” she said in a LinkedIn discussion. “Communicate [that] the reasons for decisions to exclude specific styles, footwear or garments are to assure a safe, hygienic and professional workplace.”

Tight, revealing clothing is the most common fashion no-no that Brittany King, senior recruiter and HR professional at King Consulting in Houston, said she’s witnessed. However, employers often don’t include specific verbiage that addresses this issue, she noted.

“[It] can easily become a workplace distraction and create an environment that is uncomfortable for fellow employees. It is important that all employees dress professionally at all times and are informed of what the standard of workplace dress is.”

PharMor Pharmacy and BioMed Specialty Pharmacy in the greater Detroit area issue an infographic during the summer on what’s considered appropriate vs. inappropriate dress.

“It’s not another reprint of a wordy policy for [employees] to read,” said Charm Der, SHRM-CP, HR manager and pharmacy relationship manager, on LinkedIn.

Pamela Barsky of Pamela Barsky Inc., a New York City marketplace of handmade and vintage goods, held a style session for employees at her small, creative retail company to make them aware of possible fashion blunders.

“We’re very casual about dress code because we want our employees to look creative, but we do get our share of faux pas,” she told SHRM Online. The no-nos include wearing tights as pants, wearing gym clothes, having dirty hair and employees “looking like they just rolled out of bed.”

“We solved the problem by having a company meeting and hiring a makeup artist and a hairdresser to give tips, free trims and style suggestions. We went over [the] dress code and offered $100 to each employee to go out and buy some clothing which fits our requirements.

“After purchase, we imprint [the clothing items] with company-approved designs, so staff is wearing their own clothes, but a uniform of sorts.” Open toe shoes, gym clothes and tights worn as pants are not on the list of approved clothing.

Sandra Medley, SHRM-SCP, was hearing complaints about employees’ wardrobes not meeting company standards when she was area HR supervisor for UPS Supply Chain Solutions in 2010. The TV show “What Not to Wear” was popular at the time, so she staged a company version of the program during an all-hands meeting. Members of the employee relationship committee modeled tank tops, ripped jeans, sundresses and other clothing considered inappropriate for work.

“Then I added a jacket here, a cardigan there, changed the jeans to khakis. [I] swapped out sandals with a covered shoe,” she added in an e-mail to SHRM Online. She also made a PowerPoint slide show. Employees then signed a training log verifying that they were briefed on the company’s appearance standard.

“We had fun,” she said. “We got the message across.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR NewsFollow her @SHRMwriter

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