The Dress Code: Decoding Your Company Style

September 5, 2019

Establishing a business dress code can be tricky. Here are some ways to make the transition easier for you and your employees.

Women looking through a rack of clothing to decide on a business dress code.

Dress codes for the business world can be tricky. To complicate things, today’s fashion is all over the board. On one person, you might see head-to-toe black, and it looks good. Yet, on another person you might see a spectrum of colors, patterns, and textures. Despite the contrast with all black, the motley array also looks good.

Photo of a pink slip of paper with the words "DRESS CODE," followed by a list of items not to wear.
Dress Code | Rich Anderson | CC by

While personal styles can vary, dressing for work takes a little more consideration. This is because looking stylish and wearing work-appropriate attire are two different things. That is where a dress code comes in handy.

However, deciding upon and implementing a dress code might not be the easiest thing to do. If you are considering a dress code for your company, then read these tips for ensuring a smooth transition.

What is the purpose of a dress code?

Now, perhaps your employees are a little confused about the purpose of a dress code. This is where your clear message needs to come in. Many people confuse a dress code with a form of punishment. In other words, they feel that being told what to wear stifles their self-expression.

However, the most important thing for employees to know about a dress code is that it isn’t about them. Actually, it is a way for a company to brand itself. Like the thought put into the company logo, a company hand-selects employees to represent the brand. If the employees’ appearance is neat, then they appear as a unified front.

Furthermore, an employer may extend a dress code for a special occasion or event. This takes the guesswork out of attire, depending on the purpose of the gathering.

What is the difference between a uniform and a dress code?

Now, it’s important to note that there is a difference between a uniform and a dress code. Let’s identify some ways to distinguish between the two.

The Uniform

First, let’s talk about a uniform.’s definition is “distinctive clothing worn by members of the same organization.” Think of Target, for example. Have you even walked into Target wearing a red shirt and khaki pants? If so, did customers mistake you as an employee? (This is where I blush and raise my hand, because I’ve been on both ends of that awkward situation!) So, upon considering this scenario, you know that uniforms are recognizable. Furthermore, the employer may provide a uniform upon hiring an employee. This way there is no mistake about what the employee should wear on a daily basis.

The Dress Code

Next, let’s contrast what we know about a uniform with a dress code. Imagine walking into a bank. If you look around, you will see the tellers, personal bankers, and a managers. If you are paying attention, you will probably notice some differences. The tellers are likely wearing a nice shirt and slacks, although they might not all be the same color or pattern. The personal bankers wear suits, but not necessarily with the coats. The managers might wear a full suit and tie. This represents the hierarchy of positions within the establishment. While their outfits differ, the employees maintain a neat appearance.

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How to properly implement a dress code?

  • First, make sure your dress code is available in your employee handbook. Easily-accessible information makes it convenient for employees to read at their leisure.
  • Second, don’t require employees to purchase expensive attire. If costly pieces are necessary, then you might want to consider a clothing stipend.
  • Third, be careful of mandating attire that is sexist. For example, be mindful that some women prefer not to wear skirts, so make sure to have flexible options.
  • Fourth, be mindful to avoid discriminating against people for their size or shape. Avoid requiring tight or loose clothing, as weight can be challenging for some people.
  • Fifth, try to be culturally sensitive. As we continue to embrace diversity, know that some cultures also have their own dress codes. Be ready to allow elements of other cultures, even with a dress code.

Modes of the Code

Now, there is not necessarily only one way to dress while at work. In fact, some businesses implement a variety of modes, depending on the events of the day.

Here are some common modes of attire, and examples to go along:

Image of various types of modes of dress.
  • Casual – Relaxed attire that is appropriate for everyday use. Examples: Jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, sneakers.
  • Business Casual – Office-appropriate or attire. Examples: Skirts, slacks, buttoned-down shirts, closed-toed shoes.
  • Business Formal – Full suit, appropriate for interviews and important meetings. Examples: Jacket, skirt, matching pants, tie, closed-toed shoes.
  • Business Cocktail – After-hours attire for cocktail hour or work dinners. Examples: Dark clothing, dresses that cover shoulders/back, skirts that go to the knee, open-toed shoes acceptable.

Keep in mind that you can customize your dress code to your business needs, as long as you implement it fairly.

Model the Mode

Dress Code Image 5 1 1
Photo by Christine Yanner

If you are worried about how to present the different modes to your employees, make it visual. Employees will understand how they should dress through visuals of appropriate attire. Now, you can start with photos of appropriate attire in the employee handbook. Also, if you model the dress code, that is the best way to help employees catch on. So, make sure to set a good example with your own attire.

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Attire Issues to Avoid

Another thing to know is that there are a few situations you’ll want to avoid as you enforce your dress code.

First, remember to avoid enforcing a dress code as a means of punishment. However, if you would like to give a casual-dress day as a reward to employees, that is acceptable.

Second, remember to keep a dress code violation private. In other words, don’t publicly address someone about failing to adhere to the dress code. Rather, pull the employee aside and discuss the person’s attire with constructive feedback. For example, “While I love funky ties, John, the dress code doesn’t allow profanity. Would you mind removing that tie while you are in the office?”

Third, remember that it isn’t a good idea to make an example out of someone. In other words, don’t say, “Jill’s outfit is on point, while Jane’s outfit is too tight.” Not only could this be embarrassing, but one could view it as discrimination.

Dress Code for the Job You Want

Experts often encourage job seekers and employees to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” That’s great advice when explaining the purpose of the dress code.

Implementing a dress code can be challenging, especially if your office hasn’t had one. However, devising a dress code that is realistic can help people accept it more easily. Also, be sure to tread lightly when implementing the dress code. Avoid embarrassing people by singling them out, and try to compliment with criticisms. This way, employees will know the criticism is nothing personal. Rather, managers should communicate that the dress code is an extension of the brand. Hence, the purpose of the dress code is to improve unity, not diminish self-expression.

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