Dress Code Policy: What It Is, How to Make One

Dress codes may seem outdated, but they still have a place in today’s working world.

Written by Jeff Rumage
Published on Nov. 08, 2023
Dress Code Policy: What It Is, How to Make One
Image: Shutterstock

A dress code policy establishes what types of clothing and grooming choices are appropriate for the workplace. And while dress codes may seem outdated, they still have a place in today’s working world. Companies can use them to uphold standards of safety and professionalism, provide wardrobe guidance to new employees and ensure all employees are held to the same appearance standards.

What Is a Dress Code Policy?

A dress code policy is a set of guidelines advising employees what they should wear to work. 

Creating an office dress code policy can be a balancing act between upholding a professional image without appearing old-fashioned or culturally clueless. This guide covers how to do it.

 

What Is a Dress Code Policy?

A dress code policy sets a standard for what type of attire is acceptable in the workplace. Companies adopt dress codes for a variety of reasons. Some industries, like healthcare and hospitality, may rely on dress codes to uphold safety and sanitary standards. Dress codes in office environments, on the other hand, are typically a reflection of company culture.

Companies might also adopt a dress code to maintain a certain standard of professionalism, which could vary greatly depending on the company culture. Companies in the financial, legal or insurance industries, for example, might want to conform to the traditional norms in those industries, while a laid-back tech startup may allow their workers to wear clothing that showcases their individuality.

Dress codes may seem less relevant in a remote work environment, but Kimberly Rogan, head of people operations at construction software company PlanHub, said her team created a remote dress code policy to account for some unexpected challenges — like people not wearing pants.

“There’s all sorts of adds and changes that we’ve had to bring in to dress code policies now post-Covid,” Rogan said.

Related ReadingWhat to Wear to a Job Interview

 

Types of Dress Codes

A company’s dress code will typically fall into one of four types, giving employees a general idea of what is considered appropriate attire in the workplace.
 

Business Formal 

Business formal is the most strict dress code, typically reserved for black-tie dinners and other special occasions. It could include a dark suit and matching dressing pants over a white collared shirt, along with a pocket square, cufflinks and leather dress shoes. A formal dress code could also include a dark suit coat, blouse and a knee-length skirt or dress slacks paired with formal flats, heels or closed-toe pumps.

 

Business Professional

Business professional attire is still dressy, but more appropriate for everyday office wear than business formal attire. Commonly found in the legal and finance fields, this dress code could include a suit or blazer, dress shirt, tie, dress pants and dress shoes. Alternatively, one could wear a blazer, blouse and a knee-length skirt or dress slacks with heels or formal flats. Unlike business formal, this dress code allows a little more flexibility to wear dress shirts and ties with patterns or brighter colors.

 

Business Casual

Business casual, the most common dress code in U.S. offices, allows employees to abandon their suits and blazers for a wider variety of attire, like button-down shirts, polo shirts, blouses, dresses and sweaters. Employees might round out their look with dress slacks, khakis, chino pants, knee-length skirts or capri pants along with loafers, flats and other casual shoes (no sneakers).

 

Casual

Many startups and other informal office environments will allow casual attire, which can include hooded sweatshirts, sweaters, tee shirts, blouses and button-down shirts along with jeans, khakis or skirts. Shoe options could include sneakers, boots or sandals. Although a casual dress code is more relaxed, employees should still not wear gym clothes, revealing outfits or clothing with stains, rips or offensive graphics.

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What to Include in a Dress Code Policy

A dress code policy can range from one sentence long to a multi-page document. In general, though, a dress code policy should provide the following information:
 

General Guidelines

The policy should start with a high-level overview about the company’s expectations for cleanliness and professionalism. This section can also lay out the general dress code classification, such as casual, business casual or business professional.

 

Acceptable and Unacceptable Attire

Terms like "business casual” are notoriously confusing, so it can be helpful to provide examples of what types of clothing are acceptable and unacceptable. Some companies might also include guidance about jewelry, tattoos, piercing and grooming standards. This list does not have to be exhaustive, but it should answer questions employees are likely to have.

 

Enforcement

The dress code should state what actions will be taken if an employee violates the dress code.

 

Questions and Exemptions

Employees should also be invited to contact the HR department if they have any questions or if they would like to request an exemption from the policy. Employees may need an exemption due to religious practices, like wearing a hair covering, or due to a disability, like foot ulcers that make it painful to wear dress shoes.

Related ReadingWhat Is Gender Bias in the Workplace?

 

What Not to Include in a Dress Code Policy 

Dress code policies should not discriminate against employees based on their gender, religion or other protected class. 

Robert Kaskel, chief people officer at software company Checkr, suggests companies keep their dress code restrictions to a minimum so as not to impede on the cultural identity of employees. He said every rule should be gender-neutral and applicable to any employee.

“While you may need a dress code policy in place, it’s far more important to keep it minimal and allow your team to express themselves through their clothing,” Kaskel added.

 

Gender-Specific Language

Companies are allowed to have different dress code requirements for men and women, but any restrictions that place a heavier burden on one gender over another could put a company at risk for a gender discrimination lawsuit. A company couldn’t allow men to wear pants but require women to wear skirts, for example, as that might be perceived as that could be interpreted as having a disparate impact on women employees.

As a best practice, companies should abstain from making gender-specific requirements. Gender-neutral dress codes can also create a more inclusive environment for transgender or nonbinary employees, who may feel targeted by a gender-specific dress code that does not align with their gender identity.

 

Hair Requirements

Hair requirements need thoughtful consideration before they’re implemented. Black employees, for instance, can be disproportionately impacted by hair requirements. A 2023 study of nearly 3,000 women found more than 20 percent of Black women between the ages of 25 and 34 have been sent home from work because of their hair. More than 23 states have passed The Crown Act, which expands racial discrimination laws to defend against hair-based discrimination.  

Hair requirements may also impact an employee’s religious practices. Some religions may require adherents to cover their hair, which can conflict with a dress code that doesn’t allow hats. Other employees may belong to a religion that prevents them from cutting their hair, which can pose an issue if a dress code prevents the wearing of facial hair. If a hair requirement were to conflict with an employee’s religious practices, it would typically be incumbent upon that employee to seek an exemption from the dress code. 

“As long as the policy is not discriminatory — either geared toward a protected class, has a disparate impact on a protected class or infringes on a disability or religious accommodation — the employer has a lot of flexibility to adopt a policy that is appropriate under the circumstances,” Patrice Arend, employment law attorney at Taft, told Built In.

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How to Write a Dress Code Policy 

Keep the following tips in mind when making your company dress code policy. And for an idea on how to implement them, check out the dress code policy template in the next section.
 

Start With a Stated Purpose for the Policy

When writing a dress code policy, the desired purpose should be a company’s guiding principle. For example, companies may adopt a policy to reduce safety risks, present a professional image to clients or prevent attire that may be disruptive to workplace productivity.

 

Be Inclusive of all Employees

The dress code policy should also aim to be as inclusive as possible, avoiding any requirements that could discriminate against employees based on gender, race, religion or cultural traditions. 

Kaskel said a dress code policy should be created by a group of people from diverse cultural backgrounds to ensure the policy is as inclusive as possible and avoids “the potential for unconscious bias to creep in.”

 

Don’t Worry About Trying to Write an Exhaustive Policy

At the same time, companies shouldn’t feel pressured to address every single garment or grooming choice in their dress code policy. 

“It’s very difficult to draft any policy, especially a dress code policy, to cover every single thing you can think of,” Arend said. “There will always be an employee that comes to work wearing something you might not have anticipated.”

 

Update Your Policy Over Time

Whatever your dress code policy looks like, know that it may change over time. Some companies think they don’t need a dress code policy, but they end up adopting one when employees push the boundaries of good taste. Similarly, some companies may start out with simple dress code guidelines, but they eventually find it necessary to provide additional clarity on specific issues that have arisen over time.

“Any policy that’s adopted should certainly not be the end of the inquiry,” Arend said. “Employers need to maintain flexibility and understand that just because they adopt a certain policy today doesn’t mean that policy won’t change in the future.”

Related ReadingWhat Is Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB)?

 

Dress Code Policy Template 

At [company name], employees are expected to present themselves with good hygiene and clean, professional clothing.

Employees should dress in business casual attire unless otherwise stated by their manager. Employees are expected to be well-groomed and should abstain from wearing any clothing with holes, stains or inappropriate words or imagery. Clothing should not be revealing or make others feel uncomfortable.

Examples of appropriate clothing include, but are not limited to:

  • Button-down shirts, blouses and sweaters
  • Dress pants, casual khaki-style pants and capris
  • Dresses and skirts of appropriate length for the workplace
  • Dress shoes, loafers and dress sandals
  • Jewelry and fragrances may be worn minimally

Examples of inappropriate clothing include, but are not limited to:

  • Athletic clothing, such as sweatpants, yoga pants, shorts and sneakers
  • Clothing with political, religious or other words or imagery that could be offensive or distracting
  • Tight or revealing clothing, such as halter tops, tank tops, crop tops and skirts or dresses that are inappropriately short for the workplace
  • Casual sandals or slippers
  • Excessive jewelry or fragrances

Employees who violate this dress code may not be allowed to work until their attire and hygiene are consistent with the policy. Employees who repeatedly violate this policy may be subject to disciplinary action, including termination. 

This policy is not intended to prohibit any religious or ethnic practices. If you have any questions or concerns about this policy, please contact the HR department at [email protected].
 

Frequently Asked Questions

Dress codes can help some industries, like restaurants and healthcare, meet sanitary standards. Manufacturing companies might use a dress code to prevent accidents. A retailer might design a dress code to make employees identifiable. In the office, a dress code can be useful in establishing a professional image or minimizing workplace disruptions. 

A gender-neutral dress code policy does not dictate what types of clothing should be worn by men or women. A gender-neutral dress code policy ensures that employees of all genders are treated equally, and it also creates a more inclusive environment for transgender and non-binary employees. 

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