Is Debrahlee Lorenzana too sexy for her button-down banker job? The alleged banker babe is getting a lot of ink about the stink being made over her dismissal from Citibank. A court of law actually dismissed her case last month, but only due to the fact that Citibank contractually requires such disputes to be settled by arbitration. (To refresh your recollection about my earlier posts regarding the pros and cons of arbitration, click here.)
I’m sure that big things are in store for Debrahlee, but my discussing her case here is not one of them. Nope. Sorry, dear. But . . . your case is a good segue into the topic of how tricky the enforcement of business dress codes can be.
Without the exercise of good judgment, employees can find themselves complying with the “letter” of the code and still miss its “spirit.” Unfortunately, it can result in employees taking actions that place form than substance. What that means for you the business owner or manager is that your code can be taken literally, with the express language overriding what is implied. An example would be to interpret the sign at the beach restaurant that says “shirt and shoes required” to mean that pants are optional.
Even though Summer does not officially start until June 21st, the rising temperatures experienced across the country make this a good time to revisit business dress codes because there is a natural tendency to want to relax our business dress to match the season. Giving in to that tendency, however, may not always be wise.
A few years ago a friend of mine opened a successful public relations firm. Having come from a starched, button-down corporate environment ham-strung by strict policies and rules of conduct he wanted to create a friendly, casual, yet professional environment at his new office. The concept worked well until one hot Summer day a new hire reported for duty sporting flip flops and a midriff bearing top that revealed some interesting body piercing. It was too much information.
In a heartbeat my friend found himself issuing edicts and channeling his former CEO. The honeymoon was over. What followed was a series of ugly confrontations that ultimately led to the dismissal of the new hire. It was a painful, yet eye-opening experience for him that caused him to formalize a business dress code in writing.
Private employers do have a legal right to establish the criteria for an acceptable “uniform” in their workplace. Employees represent the business to the outside world. As a result, their actions and behaviors while on the job are an extension of the company’s brand and image.
Some businesses allow for more individuality than others. A restaurant, for example might require its waiters and waitresses to only wear black pants and black shirts while on the clock. Another might require shirt sleeves to be long enough to cover tattoos.
Here are a few factors to consider when deciding where to draw the dress code line for your business:
1. What is the business justification for drawing the line where you want to draw it?
a. How much is determined by your industry and how much by the brand image or business persona your business wants to project?
b. To what extent does employee attire influence public perception of your business?
c. What kind of internal business culture do you want to foster?
d. Is the internal business culture, or persona, consistent with your brand image?
2. How can you effectively communicate the dress code policy to all employees?
3. How can you effectively and consistently enforce the dress code policy to all employees?
What is “appropriate” dress in the workplace will always be subject to interpretation and dependent on industry and other norms. But the better you can communicate company expectations without patronizing or micromanaging your employees and the more consistent you are in applying the dress code fairly to everyone, the less likely it is that you’ll come under attack for discrimination or harassment when counseling employees to dress more appropriately when they cross the line.