Workplace Dress Codes Push Fashion Forward — and Sometimes Backward

Flip-flops, board shorts and a tattered Rip Curl T-shirt. Perfect beach attire to be sure, but it’s not uncommon to see employees at companies with progressive — some may call them nonexistent — dress codes roll into the office as if it’s a day at the beach and not a 10-hour shift behind a keyboard.

Organizations still contemplate defining business casual dress codes.

While dress codes have substantially loosened over the past three decades, the area between appropriate and inappropriate apparel becomes a bit hazy. Joseph Rosenfeld, fashion and personal style strategist and co-founder of ModeDNA, says that lax dress policies can result in employees consistently dressing down and misrepresenting themselves in a professional setting.

“What’s happened with business casual as a concept culturally is we chase to the lowest common denominator,” he said.

Business casual can be a safe bet in allowing employees to dress to their comfort levels and identities. By definition, business casual is just a step down from business professional. It is more casual, but doesn’t include jeans, and certainly bars shorts and an old high school gym T-shirt. Still, business casual can be a bit blurry too, depending on how well, or how poorly, a workplace communicates its do’s and don’ts when it comes to what to wear to work.

“More than 20 years later, I’m still trying to teach people that casual means leaving things to chance, and you don’t really want to leave things to chance when it comes to how you present yourself professionally,” Rosenfeld said.

An OfficeTeam survey found that nearly 31 percent of office workers stated that they would prefer to be at a company with a business casual dress code; 27 percent favor a casual dress code or no dress code at all.

But there are limits to what passes as acceptable office attire. The survey also found that the most common dress code violations at work include wearing overly casual clothing and showing too much skin.

“I find that companies with a strict business professional policy often deal with less dress code violations and a more consistent workforce. However, their employees end up feeling bored with their wardrobes and unable to express themselves and their personalities,” said Megan Moran, founder and wardrobe stylist at The Style Foundry. Although Moran also said that companies that implement a casual dress code policy may struggle with displaying a consistent company message and their employees may lose that empowered feeling that comes with business professional attire.

Workplaces should also avoid enforcing a dress code policy that is sexist or neglects traditional clothing among different cultures and religions. Failing to accommodate these aspects can put a company in legal trouble. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on account of their religion, birthplace, ancestry, culture or linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group.

Amy Quarton, associate professor at Maryville University in St. Louis, said managers should ask employees for their input to help draft an appropriate dress code as this could illuminate potential concerns and legal risks as well as earn support. Quarton also said that the policy should include clear guidelines and examples of what is and is not acceptable as well as established consequences. The goal is to create a dress code policy that allows all employees to express themselves through their work attire while simultaneously represent their employer’s brand in a positive way, she said.

“New and existing employees may benefit from training programs aimed at improving their cultural competencies and understanding of stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination,” Quarton said. “Employers can also establish a process that allows employees to share their concerns about the dress code. They can then work with people on an individual basis to negotiate accommodations that work for both the employer and the employee.”

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