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Nose Rings, Frayed Cuffs, and Breasts

Nose Rings, Frayed Cuffs, and Breasts

Seven months ago you hired a cracker-jack marketer who quickly proved herself indispensible. “Jackie” had a way of connecting with people, accessing the media HR, HR Management, HR Strategies, Dress Codeand describing the value of your organization in ways that lead to a dramatic increase in revenue. You don’t want to lose Jackie, but she’s just started wearing a nose ring. She thinks it’s attractive, but you consider it off-putting to a sizeable number of potential clients.

You encouraged one of your long-term employees to use his annual leave because you worried he was burning out. “Bill” spent two weeks surfing off Baja California and returned relaxed. Although you enjoy the new at-ease Bill, you’re concerned he now thinks it okay to wear flip flops and rumpled jeans with frayed cuffs to client meetings.

Because “Gloria” hopes to find a guy, she dresses in an edgy, provocative manner. You catch other employees looking at Gloria’s cleavage and wish she’d realize how much shows when she bends over.

What right does an employer have to tell an employee how to dress? Can an employer get away with telling an employee he or she needs to go home and change clothes?

If you employ workers who push boundaries in how they dress at work, a dress code and a frank discussion may help.  Employers may institute and enforce a dress code if it has a sound business basis and doesn’t discriminate against an individual based on race, culture, age, sex, national origin or religion.

The best dress codes give employees clear, easy to follow standards and make ample allowance for individual preferences. Employers can set different standards for different jobs or sections of their company as long as they base their differing standards on sound business reasons and avoid discrimination based on sex, race, religion, age, culture or national origin. For example, many employers set stricter standards for employees having regular customer contact.

If your company’s dress code differentiates between male and female employees or discriminates against those of different races, religions or national origin, watch out. Courts have ruled against codes requiring female employees to wear dresses while allowing male employees to wear slacks. Similarly, courts have ruled that companies that ask male employees to wear neckties or cut their hair short must ask female employees to wear business attire and meet strict hair grooming standards. Employers also need to allow those who wear turbans or saris for religious or cultural reasons to do so unless the garments create a safety hazard around equipment.

If you supervise employees who “just don’t get it”, you can’t assume they will agree with you concerning what “appropriate” and “professional” mean. Your code may need to specifically rule out flip-flops, torn pants, sweat suits, the observable lack of undergarments and shorts. When an employee grieved a Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company dress code that prohibited telephone collectors from wearing shorts, Southern Bell won their arbitration.

Alternatively, although a dress code makes handling touchy situations easier, your company may not need a dress code. If most of your company’s employees dress appropriately, perhaps all the manager needs to do is talk frankly with the one employee who dresses provocatively or unprofessionally.

In other words, can you simply ask Bill to keep his vacation-born ease but return to pressed slacks when meeting clients? If Jackie’s nose ring means a lot to her she may resist removing it.  Instead, could you ask her to cover it at work with a small bandage? Without making a big deal of it could you let Gloria know you she occasionally shows more than she wants to and resolve the situation discretely?

Do you supervise employees who dress in ways that give pause?  Consider a dress code – or a frank talk.


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Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies and individuals to create real solutions to real workplace challenges. Their services include HR On-call (a-la-carte HR), investigations, mediation, management/employee training, executive coaching, 360/employee reviews and organizational strategy services. You can reach Lynne @, via her workplace 911/411 blog, or @lynnecurry10 on twitter.

  1. …or opting for uniforms, which is also an option.

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