5 tips for managing office dress code issues

The summer is finally here and temperatures rising which can – if you’re not careful – make for an uncomfortable office environment.

Pelican Director, Cheryl Bennett, an executive coach and HR expert with more than 20 years’ experience with a myriad of blue chip companies, looks at office dress code and how businesses can avoid having to get hot under the collar about staff attire.

The sun is shining! At last we can break out the summer clothes and put away our winter warmers.
At the same time though, very few businesses will want to see staff turning up to meet clients in crop tops and hot pants or scruffy shorts and T-shirts. While comfort is important, so are good professional standards.

So if a team member asks if they can wear flip flops to work, what do you do?  Where do you draw the line and how can you put in place a framework that will protect your company from time consuming and potentially reputation damaging complaints?

We only have to look towards the high heels fiasco to see how badly it can turn out if you get it wrong.

So, can you ask staff not to wear flip flops? Can you ask staff to keep tattoos covered even in hot weather?  Could you ask a man to cover his tattoos because they are all the way up his arm without doing the same of the girl in the office who has a small one on her wrist?

The simple answer is that as long as you have a business reason for the dress code and your reasons don’t discriminate against anyone (i.e. the rule applies to all staff and doesn’t contravene the Equality Act 2010) then the simple answer is “yes”.

If you feel that a certain image is required in the workplace that echoes the ethos or culture of the organisation, you may ask workers to remove piercings or cover tattoos.  As long as this doesn’t discriminate then that’s fine. In fact, if staff are dealing with customers then this is a sound business reason.

If certain dress, hair-style or jewellery is a health and safety issue, for example if hair needs to be up and out of the way when handling food or machinery, then this is also a sound reason.

When putting in place such rules or a framework through which you can manage them, it’s often a good idea to consult staff and find out what they think is suitable work-wear. They may surprise you!

You should then ensure the rule is written down in a staff handbook and communicated to all team members so they understand what standards are expected from them and can be held accountable to them.

It’s useful to go through this during new starter inductions so everyone is clear from the off and it’s not enough to say ‘smart casual office wear’ – after all what does that really mean? Be precise and specify what can and can’t be worn.

For example, you could say: “no skirts or garments more than five centimetres above the knee” or “no midriffs showing or off-the-shoulder garments”. This may seem quite instructive and officious but being clear from the outset can prevent misunderstanding.

When it does get very hot, employers should be aware of the temperature regulations laid down in Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 which place a legal obligation on employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace.

Whilst there isn’t a specific “legal temperature” to adhere to, it is important to ensure staff are comfortable and that heat is not a potential workplace hazard.  It’s only natural that productivity and motivation will drop if employees feel too hot.

Employers should consult with employees or their representatives to agree realistic and workable ways to cope with high temperatures. Ensure adequate ventilation by opening windows, using fans or investing in air-conditioning.  Shade windows with reflective film to reduce the effects of the sun. And remember with hot weather often comes hay fever, which can be debilitating for those who suffer badly and this in turn can lower productivity.

It’s all common sense stuff but following this advice can prevent fashion faux pas and more serious staff sartorial issues.

My top five tips are:

  • Consult with staff on dress code and temperature issues
  • Invest in measures to control office temperature
  • Create a dress code based around sounds business reasons which is in line with the Equality Act 2010
  • Publish the dress code in a staff handbook and revisit it annually
  • Set the tone from the off with advice during staff inductions

For HR help and advice, from policy assistance to coaching, vision and values work and much more, contact Cheryl on 01457 820807.

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