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HR How-to: Enforcing Dress Code in The Summer

As the temperature rises, in offices across the US, so do the hemlines. Having a summer dress code to accommodate the warmer weather often raises the temperature of your HR professionals as they prepare to tackle many uncomfortable conversations.

In a previous Abel HR blog posting published years ago, we highlighted a Biz Journals version of a Dear Abby request and gave a few pointers that your beleaguered HR rep can use to help approach these conversations, but the issue seems to come around so frequently that we thought a more in-depth post with more tips and tricks was warranted. 

Start at the beginning: 
If you’re hiring in the dead of winter, it sometimes seems a little silly to go telling people how they should dress six or even eight months from now when the temperature rises, but you’ll be thankful you laid the right foundation once summer rolls around. When new employees come on board, be sure to give them an employee handbook that includes general information about your office dress code, including a special section about how these rules are modified in the summer. Similarly, if this is the first time you’ve offered a more relaxed dress code, consider sending a memo out to all employees detailing the change, when it will be rolled out, and what your expectations are for their participation. 

Be explicit: 

Telling someone to “dress appropriately” or “keep it professional” is far too open to interpretation. In outlining your dress code, be explicit about what width straps are permissible, provide a minimum length for skirts (such as “hitting at the knee”), and note that only closed-toe shoes are permitted to help chase away some of the summer scaries!

Tie it to your environment: 
In some industries, dressing down for summer can cause some health and safety issues. It may be inappropriate, for example, for a factory line worker to wear a shirt with flowy sleeves or for a man to have his legs exposed if they’re at risk for chemical spills. In addition to being explicit about what attire is appropriate, you’ll also want to potentially run any such policy by a safety inspector such as our in-house expert here at Abel HR. You might consider potentially an employment attorney to make sure that any restrictions you are imposing due to health and safety do not present specific race, gender, or cultural group problem. 

Try it out: 
Sometimes you do not know how a looser dress code is going to go until you try it out. Rather than abruptly overhauling your company’s wardrobe requirements, some experts suggest phasing it in by designating just one day a week when employees are invited to dress down. In this way, a shift to summer style is phased in and managers and HR reps can be more alert on the one designated day to any wardrobe violations and can discretely address it with those employees while also considering any broader revisions to the dress code that may be necessary before a more widespread roll out. 

Consider your exceptions: 
As with almost any company policy, there will likely be some exceptions, and a summer dress code policy is no different. As such, we remind you to consider any exceptions to dress code policy revisions and adjust your plans accordingly. For example, an employee with disabilities may require an accommodation in the summertime dress policy related to a condition (such as an allergy to a specific material) or have a foot condition that means that they have to wear sneakers instead of dress shoes. Further, you’ll want to be sure that your summertime dress code doesn’t violate rules on gender identity and expression or otherwise discriminate against employees based on their sexual orientation and that it is inclusive of employees from all religious and cultural backgrounds. Where companies most frequently run afoul of these laws is in grooming policies, so be sure that your summer policy is in line with your year-round policy when it comes to these potential pitfalls.

Be consistent: 
While we note that exceptions are common, you should be sure that your summer dress code policy is enforced evenly, particularly across genders. If, for example, a woman is called out for wearing a shirt with a non-company logo, you must be sure to call out her male peers that are wearing similar attire, even if her logo is bigger, more prominent, or for a company that is more controversial than that worn by her peers. And of course, the key to consistency often lies in training your managers to enforce the policy uniformly…

Manage your managers: 
When it comes to telling your employees what to wear, there are plenty of opportunities for tricky conversations. Calling out a person because they are dressed inappropriately can be uncomfortable for a manager and truly mortifying for an employee. With this in mind, experts recommend that you train your managers on how to correctly broach the subject in a way that is respectful of the employee, will preserve the business relationship, and is representative of the whole organization. If this isn’t feasible, you could appoint a single person, typically an HR rep, to serve as the dress code police and let folks know if they are in any way violating the standards previously set forth. Either way, any conversation about a departure from the accepted dress policy should focus on the article of clothing, as opposed to the physical body part, and should be constructive in nature. The point person should explain to the employee specifically which part of the dress code it violates and offer constructive feedback, such as noting that skirts are fine for the summer, but they should hit at the knee in keeping with the professional nature of the office. 

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