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Dress Code Policies—Time for Change?

Posted by on April 11, 2019 in Human Resources

Dress Code Policies – Time for Change?
By Maggie Johnson

In theory, a dress code policy for the workplace could simply consist of two words—Dress Appropriately! However, it seems that employers feel compelled to write policies containing long lists of what and what not to wear in the workplace. Since a vast number of companies have adopted business-casual guidelines for the workplace, isn’t it time to lighten up on rigid dress code policies? In March this year, as reported by the Washington Post (March 21, 2019), even Goldman Sachs, known for its immaculately business-clothed company representatives, officially changed its dress code policy to a “firm-wide flexible dress code.”

Tattoos, Facial Jewelry and Wild Hair

Some dress code policies state that tattoos must be covered, facial jewelry, such as nose, eyebrow and tongue piercings, are not permitted at work, and hair styles must be conservative. That just doesn’t seem to fit in today’s society with its mostly millennial workforce. In certain circumstances, the last restriction could be construed as discriminatory. In fact, the New York City Commission on Human Rights announced, “[G]rooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with black people generally violate the New York City Human Rights Law’s anti-discrimination provisions.” The Commission identified protected hairstyles as “Natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.” These would include cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots and Afros. Even if your company isn’t operating in New York City, how long do you think a similar law might be enacted in your district? As for tattoos, a 2017 survey reported that more than 25% of the US population have at least one tattoo. That’s a lot of covering up by a lot of people before they enter their workplace in the morning! On October 2014, Starbucks changed its dress code policy to allow employees to openly display their tattoos at work, so long as tattoos are tasteful and not on the face or throat.

Unequal Punishment

Company dress code policies often stipulate that an employee who comes to work dressed in attire that management does not approve of must go home and change into a more “appropriate” garment. If the employee is non-exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (compensated by the hour), the time it takes to travel from work to home, change clothing, and return to the workplace is typically not compensated by the employer. Yet, a sloppily-dressed exempt (salaried) worker doesn’t lose any compensation in similar circumstances.

Employees are Responsible Adults

We entrust employees with all kinds of tasks and responsibilities, some complex, some requiring a great deal of skill and experience, but it seems many employers don’t yet trust them to be able to dress and groom themselves in a manner suitable for their workplace. But isn’t it time for change? Is it time to ditch the dress code policy that has extensive ‘Do’s’ and ‘Do Nots?’ Imagine if we simplified our dress code policies to ones that encouraged workers to use their own good judgement and wear clothing in keeping with their profession and industry. Obviously, freedom from a strict dress code policy shouldn’t override employee or public safety. For example, long hair should be tied back or under a cap if operating machinery, preparing food or performing surgery, etc. Workers should be mindful and wear the attire that fits their job, but let’s lift overly authoritarian polices, and allow employees to be the responsible adults we hired.

The above article is provided as initial information only. You should not rely on such information as a substitute to professional advice from an appropriately qualified licensed attorney or advisor.


Maggie Johnson

I have more than 25 years of experience in HR Leadership that spans the healthcare,education and financial services industries. I also hold a law degree (LLB) with honors from the University of London and have SPHR and SHRM-SPC designation from HRCI and the Society for Human Resource Management, respectively.
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