Dressing for Success During Summer Months and Beyond

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create a dress codeSummer is here, and that means many employees will be gladly throwing off clothing layers and slipping into warm-weather wear. 

Even as dress standards at work have undeniably relaxed in recent decades, few employers welcome “beach casual” for a day at the office—and few of us want to see our coworkers barely clad. If your regular dress code is already casual, staff are more likely to push the boundaries when the weather turns toasty. 

Perhaps you feel your office needs a summer dress code, but creating a thoughtful policy that can apply to all seasons is a better goal. And by thoughtful, we mean REPA: Realistic, Enforceable, Practical, and Aligned with your company culture and your industry standards. Here are some thoughts on how to craft one, step-by-step:

R: Realistic
Before you put your rules in writing, give some thought to how they aline with the realities of modern life. For example, there was a time when many offices frowned on open-toed shoes of any kind. But if you’ve been shopping for women’s shoes lately (or just noticed what women around you are wearing), you’ll know it’s a challenge to find summer shoes in other styles. Sneakers used to be reserved for sports or activewear, but now you’ll find plenty of dress-up styles and more formal hybrids. Unless your industry is extremely conservative, my advice is to eschew the most restrictive dress codes and frame yours in a way that emphasizes company expectations and priorities of professionalism (along with safety and hygiene, if appropriate) for all employees. You want to reinforce positive and realistic qualities, rather than sounding purely prohibitive.

If you’re struggling to find the right language, you might try the playful, simplified approach of using pictures to provide concrete examples, as in: wear this, not that. Showing a sense of humor about the policy can help get your message across without provoking any hard feelings. 

E: Enforceable
Generally speaking, employers have a great deal of leeway when it comes to regulating what their employees wear to work, whether that means a uniform or a dress code. A dress code must be enforced consistently—it can’t place a greater burden on one gender, for example, and can’t be applied in a discriminatory manner. Employers may need to make reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability, or one whose religious practice would dictate some modification or relaxing of the rules. While these are some general guidelines, it’s important to know the laws that govern your state or municipality as well (in California, for example, it’s illegal to prohibit female employees from wearing pants). 

Your policy should be guided by what is reasonable and necessary for your workplace. Keep in mind that an overly-strict dress code will be more difficult to enforce. You also want to consider how your dress code might impact transgender and gender non-conforming employees. Think back to your general reasoning for implementing a code: If the goal is for employees to reflect a professionally-appropriate standard for your organization and their area of work, you can state that without getting into gender specifics or stereotypes.

Consider, as well, what the consequences will be, if you need to address a violation: Will you send someone home to change? If so, how will that policy impact exempt vs. non-exempt employees? Depending on your culture and how severe the infraction, you may simply want to have a conversation with your employee and issue a verbal warning, if necessary. 

[Air Conditioning on High? Read Which Office Sweater are You?]

P: Practical
Ask yourself: Does your physical work environment support your desired dress code? For instance, if your workplace (or the nature of your work) is physically demanding, and/or involves dusty, dirty, or other potentially messy conditions, then a dress code that requires employees to wear their Sunday best might not be a great fit. 

Consider the climate where you work, inside and out, and how that might affect adherence to the dress code. Are parts of the building extremely hot or extremely cold? If someone is constantly chilled by blasts from the air conditioner, they may be tempted to grab a rumpled sweater or whatever extra layer is at hand, regardless of how unprofessional it looks. 

Consider how employees interact with clients, customers, and other business partners—are they in person or on the phone, email, or chat? Are they making sales calls to other businesses, moving palettes, or presenting to potential clients? If they are working entirely behind the scenes, do you want to allow for more leeway in your dress code? 

Consider also how economics may impact your workforce and their ability to “dress the part.” Employees on the lower end of the payscale may struggle to meet expectations for certain styles or brands of clothing, so it’s important to be sensitive to that as well. 

[Need ideas on what to wear to work this summer? Read Office Wear for Hot Weather]

create a dress codeA: Aligned with Company Culture and Industry Standards
Certain industries—such as banking, law, and insurance—have a reputation for being conservative, and we probably all have expectations about how a trusted banker, lawyer, or insurance agent will dress. Naturally, an employer in those industries will want staff to meet client expectations and make the strongest possible impression. 

If you work at a public interest legal clinic largely staffed with Millennials, your dress code will probably differ from a high-end private firm that handles expensive divorces and is mostly staffed with Boomers—and that’s completely okay. 

Geography and regional customs play a role, too. What’s considered professional dress in Manhattan may be overly fussy for Missoula or too formal in San Francisco. A sensible dress code should account for these variables. 

[Confused about what to wear? Read What Does Business Casual Really Mean?]

Summer brings so many reasons to celebrate and relax. So by all means, bring on the beautiful weather, baseball games, barbeques, and weekend escapes to the beach—but, just in case, be prepared to explain why the flips flops need to come off at the office. Having a sensible dress code that works all year round and is well suited to your work environment will make expectations clear for your employees, no matter the weather.

Additional resources:

Tough Questions About Implementing Your Dress Code and Sample Dress Code Policy for Business Attire from The Balance Careers; includes Q&A with an employment lawyer and a sample dress code template.

Dress Code Policy Template from Betterteam

12 Tips for Writing a Fair and Appropriate Employee Dress Code from Forbes HR Council:

Workplace Dress Codes and Transgender Employees from Human Rights Campaign 

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR (Senior Professional Human resources), SHRM-SCP is an HR professional and freelance writer born, bred, and living in Philadelphia, PA. Crystal has more than 20 years of experience as an HR leader helping small- to mid-sized for-profit and nonprofit companies develop policies, programs, and procedures that increase profits, maximize efficiency, and enhance positive employee relations.


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