Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Enforce a Summertime Dress Code

Defining "appropriate'' dress to everyone's satisfaction is a challenge.
Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Enforce a Summertime Dress Code
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Dear Jacqueline,

I started a small company a couple of years ago and have never adopted a dress code. Honestly, I’m an easy-going person and I didn’t think it was necessary. That is, until one of my employees dressed inappropriately and a customer complained. As a result I now prohibit flip-flops, shorts and sleeveless shirts of any kind.

Summer is approaching and it’s extremely hot outside. Many of my employees want to be cool and comfortable and many of them don't like change. What should I do and how can I enforce this new dress code?

Best regards, Hot Under the Collar

Dear Hot,

Unfortunately, the word “inappropriately” is often subject to interpretation, and what is appropriate to one may not be appropriate to another. I sincerely doubt that the staffer in question maliciously or by intent set out to offend anyone by wearing his or her clothing, but was merely dressing in a fashion that was more comfortable than businesslike.

In this case, however, since one of your customers complained, you must take some sort of action. In an attempt to keep your reputation intact and make your customers happy, you are doing the right thing by implementing a dress code. It’s better late than never.

If your employees work in an air conditioning setting, it’s easier to enforce a more professional dress code. However, if some of your employees work outside, or come in and out of the building frequently, you might get some pushback. It’s normal that they want to be cool and comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they should dress sloppy or unprofessional. After all, they are representing your company.

I'm not one to give legal advice, however according to lawyers.com, “Employers have the legal right to establish dress and grooming codes for employees.” They can require staff to wear uniforms, or clothing bearing a company logo or colors. These are legal options, as long as they do not discriminate.

An employer can also define a particular dress code employees must follow, either for safety or image reasons. If that code is not followed, the employer has the right to treat it as a disciplinary action. You have finally come to the realization that your company has certain image to uphold, no matter what the weather.

I recommend that you hold a meeting and talk to your co-workers about this new dress code. Explain your point of view and see if there is a compromise you can reach. Anymore, jackets are rarely required, however short-sleeved or three-quarter-length sleeved shirts might be more acceptable. If your employees can wear jeans and khaki pants, insist that they not be wrinkled or faded. Specify the type of shoes that are acceptable. Don’t leave anything to chance.

Related: What's the Difference Between Business Casual and Smart Casual? A Handy Guide on How to Dress. (Infographic)

Allow each person to explain his or her point of view, and listen without judgment. You might be surprised at what you learn from the other’s viewpoint.

I’m sure you want to please your customers, and want to present an image that is both professional and representative of your business standards and reputation. If your customers get upset by something one of your employees wears (or doesn’t wear), then you must address this issue or risk losing your customer base. You might even receive unfavorable online reviews. Banning sleeveless shirts, flip-flops and shorts is not unreasonable.

Related: How to Set Your Office's Dress Code

Provide other comfortable, yet practical, options and make sure your staff knows that you value them and their comfort. Addressing their concerns is of paramount importance. Moving forward, if someone comes to work wearing inappropriate attire, pull them aside and discuss the matter in private. No one likes to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers.

Finally, you must model the correct behavior if you want your team to succeed. In other words, you must abide by the dress code too. No exceptions.

Related: How to Dress for a Business Meeting. Yes, Seriously. (Infographic)

If you have an entrepreneurial or business etiquette question, email Jacqueline Whitmore at Jackie@EtiquetteExpert.com.

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