Employees Can Dress Themselves


I hate when HR practitioners transform into the fashion police. Most HR peeps hate it, too. No one’s dream job is hatching policies outlining how many inches a skirt should leave above the knee or what to do when—oh no!—a bra strap peeks through.

Speaking of, “I had to ask one employee to wear a bra” or cover up “to keep from distracting the male employees who were complaining about her bralessness,” one CEO recently told SHRM. (Apparently, fellow female colleagues didn’t mind the extra bounce?)

Bra-gate aside, I’m currently engaged in a conversation on LinkedIn about dress codes. The thread includes an HR professional seeking help with drafting a policy. I wanted to know: “Has there been a downside to the company’s current lack of rules? Is there really a need for a policy?”

I asked especially because, as I said yesterday, businesses are sometimes too eager to pass rules when none are necessary. (Perhaps there should be a policy around crafting policies?)

The HR pro explained that this workplace already has an unofficial business-casual policy, but “the casual part occurs more than the business.” No surprise there. According to a recent OfficeTeam survey:

  • Dressing too casually accounts for 47% of all dress-code violations cited by managers,
  • Showing too much skin accounts for 32% of complaints, and
  • Having visible tattoos and piercings comes in third, at 6%.

Still, what really caught my attention was an explanation of the company owner’s philosophy: When people don’t dress for success, it’s OK to withhold raises and other financial incentives.

Dress for success? What the freak does that mean? What does success look like? I’ll tell you what it looks like to me: The photo you see above. That’s success!

I guess the answer really depends on the company. At this employer, the spin seems to be that instituting clothing rules is some quasi-altruistic act to help workers achieve greater recognition and compensation. You know, like telling kids to eat broccoli because it’s good for them.

Except, employees are not children. They are adults. And companies should treat them like adults. People do not need management to help them pick out shirts. Nevermind that even kids can recognize authoritarian leadership when they see it.

In this case, I recommended that rather than create a policy, why not just send a companywide email asking people to use better judgment regarding their attire? Don’t offer specifics. Don’t be the fashion police. Simply tell colleagues that you trust them to make their own clothing decisions. From my experience, people generally know how to present themselves around fellow coworkers, customers, vendors, etc. You don’t need to codify practices to manage the one or two outliers who shop at The Pleasure Chest for work attire.

As someone else on the thread pointed out, a dress-code policy reflects “a lack of management development. Managers should be the ones in touch with their employees’ performance and communicating standards. A big policy book indicates a cookbook mentality, which leads the manager to a ‘let’s see if there is a rule for that’ mentality instead of managing people.”

Someone else chimed in with his organization’s policy, which he said works just fine at his firm. The entire guideline reads: “Dress appropriately.” I like it!

What do you think?

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