Expunge the Grunge

Do your employees look like something the cat dragged in? Relax, here's how to introduce a dress code without ruffling any feathers

By Karen E. Klein

Q: I am a female business owner with 13 full-time employees. I have fostered a casual, yet productive, environment, but I am increasingly concerned because some employees are way too laid-back in their dress. Can I regulate personal appearance, as well as implement a dress code, without being in violation of freedom of expression (or some other such nonsense!)? -- B.N., Los Angeles


Sure you can. Employers have the right to establish dress codes, and, so long as they impose it across the board and enforce it equitably, any code you introduce should not pose a legal problem. Certainly, if you have employees whose religious beliefs mandate that they wear a particular type of clothing, you'll need to deal with those situations individually, perhaps with the help of a knowledgeable attorney. In general, however, most small outfits encounter no problems when requiring their employees to dress in a respectful and professional manner.

By the way, you're not alone in your concern that the "business casual" dress policy has gone seriously wrong. In fact, image consultants say that many companies are retracting their casual-dress codes because employees have taken them too far. Meanwhile, the dot-com bust and September 11 have helped to restore corporate culture's traditional and conservative appearance. These days, business casual isn't dead, but it's definitely becoming less popular.


  "In a tighter economy, people gravitate back to tradition," says Mary Lou Andre, a fashion consultant and editor of DressingWell.com, a Boston-based wardrobe-management and fashion-consulting business. "A lot of clients are asking us to come back in and retrain their people on how to step up their dress a bit. The real sloppy, in-your-face, overly relaxed dot-com attitude that was popular in the '90s is so over right now -- it's even distasteful. Respectful is hip. And with competition tighter, companies are using professional image as an edge, a sales tool, and a communication tool."

As you draft your dress code -- and that doesn't mean you have to go all the way and insist on nothing but suits and ties -- it wouldn't hurt to involve employees in the process. Outline what is and is not acceptable and make the guidelines specific, says Victoria Seitz, a marketing professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and author of Your Executive Image (Adams Media, $8.76). "Publish the dress code in your employee handbook, along with procedures that should be followed when employees are not in compliance with the code," she advises. "You might establish a warning system, or tell employees that they will be sent home to change if their apparel is not appropriate."

Once the dress code is in place, make sure you enforce it fairly and absolutely. If someone sees an employee from another department "getting away" with ensembles that are not in compliance, standards will begin to slide. Also, introduce your dress when assessing job candidates. "If you are interested in hiring someone, and they are not dressed appropriately at the interview, then you need to ask them if they would dress within the guidelines of the company's dress policy if hired," says Seitz. "That way there won't be any surprises."


  If you sense that the dress code is going to cause unhappiness or rebellion amongst your employees, you might want to call in a wardrobe consultant to give a seminar on the new policy so that the information is not coming directly from you. You could take the opportunity to introduce your policy at the same time, relating it to what the consultant is talking about. Enlisting a clothing retailer to provide discount coupons to employees could make the idea a win-win situation.

Once the code has been drafted and introduced, make sure your managers implement it in a way that is fair and consistent. "Circulate it in a policy memo, mention it in your employee newsletter, put it on the table at company meetings and ask if there are questions about it. Bring it up at least four times a year in a way that meshes with the rest of your employee communications," Andre suggests. "If you don't talk about it and explain it clearly...people will be afraid of it. If they know it's important to you, and to the company, they'll step up to the plate and abide by it."

Rather than simply listing "Dos and Don'ts," she advises, let your employees know why it is neither wise nor productive to wear miniskirts or dirty, ragged clothing to work. Make sure they realize that personal appearance is an extension of your brand and reflects how your business relates to customers.


  If you need more help, you can hire an image consulting firm to work with you on drafting a policy, says Donna Panko, a wardrobe consultant based in Orland Park, Ill. Her Web site, www.imageworkswonders.com, may be helpful, along with her guidelines on appropriate business casual wear: www.businesscasualhelp.com. Andre's www.dressingwell.com includes a boiled-down version, Addressing the Dress Code, that you can purchase for $99 and use as-is or customize to your needs.

Once you've established a tight dress code that represents your company's image, you'll need to decide when to introduce it, and how to enforce it. If needed, you may also want to consider workshops or dress-code training aimed at winning employees' hearts and minds, Panko says. "When companies follow these procedures," she says, "they have experienced few, if any, problems with employees misinterpreting the dress code."

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