Starbucks’ decision this month to let its 150,000 U.S. and Canadian workers sport any hair color they like—whether brown, blond, purple or green—illustrates how the company is balancing the dress code demands of employees with the organization’s brand and reputation.
Summer Smith, a Starbucks supervisor in San Diego, said in an e-mail that she’s grateful for her employer’s new policy about dyed hair. But she also recognizes that the coffee giant may not have made the change until it was convinced that customers wouldn’t be offended by someone with bright orange locks--which Smith had before joining Starbucks--handling their cappuccinos and croissants.
“I do think that some people may be turned off by [workers] with colorful hair or visible tattoos and piercings,” wrote Summer, who was among more than 14,000 people—Starbucks employees and others—who called for the change by signing a petition on Coworker.org, an online platform where people can launch and join campaigns on workplace issues. “I think some people associate a ‘rebellious’ look with drug use or lack of care for hygiene, which is funny because it's quite the opposite. Bright hair and fresh tattoos and piercings require a lot of maintenance, care and commitment.”
Unnatural hair colors on Starbucks workers—who are called “partners”—are now allowed at the coffee chain as long as the color is permanent or semi-permanent, for food safety reasons. Temporary dyes or sprays, glitters, or chalks aren’t allowed because they can flake off and get into drinks and food.
Also new in Starbucks’ dress code policy announced July 25
is the provision that employees can wear dark-wash jeans; shirts in muted colors other than black or white; and fedoras, beanies and “other suitable hats” in muted colors—although not berets or bucket hats.
“There was a certain presentation we wanted to bring forward,” said Starbucks corporate communications manager Reggie Borges, explaining the reason for the original dress code.
“We wanted to be conscious about the way we represented the Starbucks brand to customers,” Borges said, noting that Starbucks in 2014 decided to allow workers to sport visible tattoos (except on the face and throat) after more than 800 workers said in an internal survey that this was important to them. “What we learned … is that expanding the dress code to allow them to be more themselves and show off their personality was important.”
Starbucks in 2014 also decided to allow “small” nose studs and ear gauging—larger piercings of the earlobe.
When Employees Drive a Company’s Brand
Honoring worker preferences about dress codes depends, in part, on whether employees are considered part of the company’s brand, said Mila Grigg, CEO of MODA Image and Brand Consulting, based in Nashville.
“Certain companies have built a brand based upon the attitude of the people who work for them, which is very important,” Grigg said. “What you are seeing is a cultural change at Starbucks within the brand of the leadership of the company. In this case, they are allowing the [employee] culture to dictate the brand.”
She cautioned that “there are times when it is not advisable to bend to employee demands … if they go against the very brand message of a company.” In that case, she said, “bending to demands may in fact take the company to a place where it cannot survive.”
“One has to be careful of not alienating the masses for the benefit of the few,” she said. “Good leaders can discern the difference.”
Dress codes that allow brightly colored hair, tattoos and face piercings may also depend on where a company is located and the type of customers or clients it serves, said Margaret Fiester, SHRM-SCP, a knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.
“In more conservative areas of the country it could be a concern for some,” she said. “In larger, urban areas, probably not as much. In organizations or industries that have a very conservative client base, such as corporate law or banking, it perhaps would not be advisable. Less conservative workplaces—the tech industry, organizations catering to a less conservative clientele, retailers catering to a younger clientele, organizations where there is less direct contact with clients—might be well-suited to being more liberal in their appearance code.”
In addition, Fiester cautioned, “good workers are hard to find, times are changing and I would hate for organizations to lose out on good workers simply because of how they look.”
Tamara Devitt, a partner in the Silicon Valley office of Haynes and Boone, said that any dress code policy should:
• Provide specific guidelines so employees understand what is expected.
• Give the employer discretion to determine what is or isn’t appropriate.
• Allow the employer to take disciplinary action where appropriate.
• Provide accommodations for a worker’s religion or disability.
“Without a clear policy, an employer’s decisions may be viewed as ad hoc and, thus, the employer may be more vulnerable to claims that it was acting unfairly or discriminating,” Devitt said.