Consider a Summer Dress Code to Keep Workers Cool

Striking a healthy balance between puritanical and "anything goes" is more art than science when it comes to summer dress codes. It's worth making the effort, however, when you consider that inappropriately dressed employees can:

  • Give your customers a bad impression of your organization,
  • Create morale problems among some staff members, and
  • Increase personal safety risks in certain job categories.

Ideally, a summer dress code should be part of an overall dress policy that's clearly spelled out in your employee handbook. It should be a natural outgrowth of your approach to employee dress and applicable to all employees.

Make It Universal

Illustration of different dress options

Whatever you decide, be sure your dress code doesn't single out (or appear to single out) any employee demographic, implicitly or explicitly. The foundation of your policy should also be presented to make it clear that it's grounded in a legitimate business purpose, and not simply the personal tastes of senior management.

However, creating different standards for employees who have in-person contact with customers and members of the public, from those who don't, may be reasonable. Also, certain jobs — for example those involving the use of hazardous machinery — might logically have dress standards that differ from those of your office staff.

Having a distinctive, and typically more relaxed, summer dress policy can make sense in terms of cultural norms and comfort considerations (as in, a three-piece suit may be comfortable in January but burdensome in July). Soliciting input from younger staff members when developing a dress policy could yield insights about new fashions that might be counterintuitive. Until recently, for example, who would have thought that pants riddled with rips would ever be considered attractive?

Depending on the nature of your business, people who have in-person contact with your employees during the summer won't be shocked to see some of them wearing shorts. But, standards of dress (during any season), for example, for funeral home employees, will no doubt be more buttoned down than in the tech sector.

Make It Specific

Specificity is your friend in a summer dress code. That may help prevent violators from feeling individually targeted if you do point out an infraction. Set specific standards regarding:

  • Footwear. Are sandals or flip-flops permissible?
  • Hemline and skirt lengths. In relation to the knee, how short is too short?
  • T-shirts, including topics of text and visual images on those shirts. Will you allow these garments in the workplace?    What about shirts with provocative statements, such as political or religious messages?
  • Sleeveless tops, halter tops, tank tops, low-cut tops, or sheer and see-through fabrics. Are these considered too casual in your workplace?
  • Men's shirts. Do they need to be kept tucked in?
  • Condition. Do you wish to state that clothes must be clean, pressed and without holes?

A summer dress policy (or any other dress code policy) should indicate the consequences of violating it. Ideally the consequence will be mild, unless you're dealing with a serial offender. Some employee handbook violations will be obvious to the rule breakers. For example, employees who smoke in an office with a no-smoking policy know when they've violated company rules. Summer dress code violations can be different — at least the first time around. The violation may have been innocent.

Make It Friendly

It's important, therefore, that your response to a first violation be more of a conversation than a criticism. You can introduce the topic by telling the employee that you're seeking to "clarify" the dress code. That may prevent putting him or her on the defensive. In the conversation, avoid making statements that suggest the employee's dress is inappropriate in general, or a reflection of moral character, as opposed to simply a workplace policy violation.

It's equally important that you have that conversation promptly; if a violation was an innocent misinterpretation of the rules, coworkers might interpret your silence to be approval.

The discussion should be held in a private setting, and focus on the specific violation (for example, "shorts are not permitted in the front office"). Avoid making a general statement along the lines of "your dress is inappropriate." If a male supervisor is to discuss a violation by a female employee, having a second supervisor in on the session — ideally, a woman — can also make the encounter more productive and less awkward.

When schools enforce dress codes, they may send a student home only to return wearing clothing that complies with the school's dress code. That might be overkill in a business setting, and needlessly escalate the conflict. If a temporary fix is possible (for example, someone has a light sweater to lend for the day), take it. But if it's a matter of safety, the worker may need to find suitable attire before returning to work.

The bottom line is, deal with the situation quickly, but keep it casual and friendly so the employee isn't embarrassed and doesn't feel his or her job is on the line. There are enough mountains to climb in business without creating another one from what really amounts to just a molehill.

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