Setting Up a Dress Code in the Workplace

To put more formality in "business casual," start with a memoand follow up a week later with the worst offenders

My IT company generally has a casual atmosphere that our twentysomething employees enjoy. However, these days T-shirts and flip-flops are the norm, and I feel like our professionalism is lacking. How can I get people looking nicer without alienating my staff? — A.N., Irvine, Calif.

Your situation is not unusual. In a recent survey by Los Angeles-based temporary employment agency OfficeTeam, only 4% of employees ages 21 to 28 said they preferred business attire at work. Most said they would rather dress in business casual style or wear jeans and sneakers, although 93% said they recognized that their attire influences their chances of being promoted.

Because of the resistance to the suit and tie (or skirt and nylons for women), few companies outside of law and accounting firms require corporate attire these days, says Brandi Britton, senior regional vice-president for OfficeTeam. "Companies tend to see 'business casual' as a very broad term and we see them asking for suggestions on how to narrow it down," she says.

Distracting Attire

When dress styles become inappropriate even in a casual work environment—torn jeans or T-shirts, bare midriffs, or low-cut tops—the quality and productivity in the office goes down, she says. "Things like T-shirts with inappropriate logos, words, or images, heavy makeup, or glitter eyeshadow can be distracting and offensive. Even if a shirt is not tucked in, it should be clean and pressed and hair should be combed. We tell people: 'If you'd wear it to a ball game you shouldn't wear it to the office,'" she says.

If you don't have a written dress code, issue a memo outlining your policy, says Mary Lou Andre, editor of "Instead of making it punitive or negative, present it in neutral business words: 'Our firm, although we honor a more relaxed working environment, is still a business, and people need to be aware of their dress choices and the tone they set for our internal as well as our external brand,'" Andre suggests.

Using Humor

You can present the topic with some humor if your company already promotes a light atmosphere, she says. And then follow up with the worst offenders if their dress doesn't change a week following your memo. "Morale really is affected mightily by things like this. Most young people have never been told that they must dress a certain way, so you as a company leader must coach them," she says.

Frame one-on-one conversations with the message that you value your employees' contributions and would like to move them up the ladder, but their lack of a professional look is holding them back. "Most of them will have very little idea of how their attire is limiting them personally and limiting your company," Andre notes, "and they'll thank you for helping them."

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