Should You Have a Dress Code?

Aug 06, 2007

Whether or not an A/E/P or environmental firm should have a formal, written dress code, and if so, what should it be, are a couple of age-old questions that firms have been wrestling with as long as I can recall. These aren’t easy questions to answer, however. Firm size has a great deal to do with it. If you have a 2,500-person company with 18 offices throughout the country, your situation is entirely different from the company with 30 employees all in one location. Larger firms typically need more policies on dress (and everything else) because the owner(s)/leaders can’t be there personally to guide everyone’s individual behavior. That said, I am not a big fan of a bunch of policies that attempt to spell everything out. They usually don’t work in all cases and the exceptions are hard to deal with. Location plays a big role in answering these questions. For example, let’s say you have a formal dress code that mandates all men wear shoes with socks. That works for most places in the country, right? But what if your southernmost office is in Key West, Florida, where practically no one wears socks? Your people would not match the local culture. Or what if your policy says “no hats” because you don’t want to see a bunch of “John Deere” ball caps on your workers in your Tennessee office, yet in your Portland, Maine, office, a hat in winter is essential? Trying to tell people what to wear is never easy, either— at least not for me. I am a typical firm principal. a 49-year-old white male with an advanced degree and three kids. Do I feel comfortable telling female employees what to wear? No. I am no expert on hemline length, or fabric transparency, or heel size. Do I feel comfortable telling people born in foreign countries how to dress? No. I don’t know what’s culturally correct in all cases and I doubt many of our readers do, either. And while I think I could generally make the call on appropriate work attire or not, does that mean I want to confront someone who I don’t think is wearing appropriate clothing to work? Not really. Can you imagine telling a 35-year-old receptionist that she needs to go home and change? How humiliating would that be for that individual? This “dress code” issue is so much more than “should we have casual Fridays or not?” When I was younger, I was always the guy with a suit on. And it was a good one— no polyester for me— with a starched cotton dress shirt and expensive silk tie, and shiny dress shoes. But times have changed. Today, I wear jeans just about anywhere other than some board meetings, some weddings, and all funerals. They are good jeans with no holes in ‘em, and I still like a nice sport coat and quality, well-pressed shirt (I send ‘em out to the cleaners). Ties are optional in many locations today. The way I handled it in my own firm was to tell people “Don’t wear the clothes you’d cut your grass in or clean your house in.” That pretty much summarized how much direction I felt comfortable giving. I did, on occasion, give a little more direction on the dress issue. One time, years ago, on the way to see our largest client, I discovered that the junior principal I was traveling with had no jacket. He was from California, where jackets were optional, and we were going to Texas, where you might not even be able to get into a lunch spot without one. On the way from the airport to the clients’ office, I stopped at Men’s Wearhouse and bought him a new blue blazer and tie. I don’t think either of us will ever forget that day! Originally published 8/06/2007

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