Dilemma of the Month: Who Follows the Dress Code?

Back Q&A Sep 5, 2018 By Suzanne Lucas
My organization’s dress code is business casual — jeans are acceptable with nice tops. But our leadership team disagrees over who should have to follow this dress code. About a third of our employees work in the corporate office, and only a handful of them meet with clients or vendors. Another group of employees telecommutes and only has contact with a client or vendor if they have scheduled a meeting. Our remaining employees work in various office spaces, and have minimal direct contact with clients. Should all our employees have the same expectations or is there a different standard for those that come in contact with clients or vendors more regularly?

Imagine you needed to hire an attorney. You show up to the office, and the attorney is wearing shorts and a tank top. Do you stay and have her handle your critical legal case?

Now imagine you need someone to mow your lawn. The lawn service sends a woman wearing a pencil skirt, white blouse, cardigan and high heels. Do you call the lawn service and question its employee’s judgment?

Different jobs can absolutely require different “uniforms” — even if they are within the same company. It’s OK to have different dress codes based on the various job responsibilities.

Related: How to politely enforce your dress code

Related: Your Guide To 7 Workplace Dress Codes

If you’re trying to land a contract with a company that has a formal dress code, showing up in your jeans probably won’t help you. On the other hand, if you’re trying to win a contract with a startup where everyone wears flip-flops, a suit probably won’t help your case.

While your workplace can establish a “business casual” dress code, what business casual means can vary from department to department, and can change from client to client. Some companies have dress codes that are very specific — no open-toed shoes, no shorts, sleeveless blouses allowed during summer months and so on. Some businesses say simply “business casual” and clarify whether jeans are allowed.

But dress codes should be viewed as the minimum standard. For example, everyone has to wear — at a minimum — jeans and a shirt without a beer logo on it. However, if you are meeting with a customer, or you are going to a convention where you’ll wear a badge with the company’s name on it, you’ll be expected to dress up to the appropriate level for the function. Just because a company’s official policy is “business casual” doesn’t mean that an individual manager can’t require a salesperson to wear a suit when on a sales call.

This approach does make managing your team a bit more difficult, as you have to deal with the specific setting and not just provide a list of appropriate clothing. Managers may, from time to time, have to sit down with direct reports and say, “While it’s fine to wear jeans when you’re working around the office, when you go out on client calls you need to step it up a level. No jeans.”

Even in businesses where clients are in and out all the time, and everyone has client contact, there are still times when it makes sense to allow variations in dress code. The person who crawls under desks to fix printers and computers shouldn’t be wearing a suit. You can gasp and say, “But what if a client saw him in jeans?” In response, I say, “Wouldn’t they think it’s weird to have someone doing physical labor in dry clean-only pants?”

One side note about your employees who telecommute. They don’t need a dress code, right? (Even if you gave them one you couldn’t really enforce it.) But, if they participate in video conferences — even internally — they should wear business casual clothing, and definitely pants. Some people think they can get away without pants, but inevitably, when that happens, their doorbell rings or the dog gets in, and they stand up, and everyone sees what they didn’t want to see. So, yes, do bring it up with your telecommuting crowd.

Remember, with dress codes, it’s far easier to state expectations in advance than correct someone who dresses inappropriately. Don’t get hung up on generational differences — if it’s appropriate for people in accounting to wear jeans and T-shirts, then it’s appropriate whether they are 25 or 75 years old.

And you need to address clothing, not body type. If you allow the model look-alike to wear super short skirts, you have to allow other employees the same privilege. Additionally, general guidelines need to be gender neutral.

Focus on the actual needs of the position and the culture you want to project, and you shouldn’t have too many dress code problems.

Do your company have different dress codes for different departments?


EM (not verified)September 6, 2018 - 8:32pm

Our company has gone a similar route as GM - the policy is basically "dress for your day"; so whatever is most appropriate for your role and what you're doing that day. Those in the call centers can wear jeans every day, and those of us that may need to meet with leaders know when to be a little more polished. We've trusted managers to deal with the bumps along the way and it's worked out pretty darn well! I will admit, wearing jeans on a Tuesday sometimes still feels a little "naughty", but that's programming from 15+ years working in a business dress environment at work!