My 15 year-old stepson Sean came to breakfast yesterday in a rumpled plaid shirt and khaki shorts. I asked if he was going to wear that shirt to work at the Colophon. In typical, defensive adolescent tone he said that he was. After arguing about the curled edges and collar, he came back in a much more appropriate black T-shirt.
In my years of hiring, training and working with hundreds of young people, one of the biggest problems I had was clothing. Through the years, the dress code at the Colophon Café was updated and changed, but a few things remained constant, and the employees were always reminded that they were going to work, and work required a different outfit than almost anything else they were doing.
The question of how to deal with dress code comes up at nearly every marketing class I teach. No one wants to be a policeman at work, but sometimes it feels that way. People get defensive when you bring up something as personal as style. As a business owner, you are the one who has to determine if that style is compatible with the type of business you own. Here are a few things I’ve learned about approaching the sensitive topic of clothing at work.
Start with the employee manual
It’s extremely important to have a written dress code in your employee orientation manual. It doesn’t matter if you have only one employee, it had better be in there. If it is not written out and explained right at the beginning, you will be forever addressing the problems as they come up.
I learned this lesson early on in my restaurant days, when a fashion- forward waitress asked me if she’d be fired for shaving her head in honor of a bald female musician. Not wanting to appear too uncool, I had to think about it for a minute. In restaurants especially, how servers look can directly affect how comfortable customers feel. I finally made a Solomon-like decision, telling her that she could do it if she wore a hat or scarf to work.
Analyze your target market
The dress code for a restaurant is different from one for a doctor’s office. A store that caters to children will be different from one that caters to elderly people. A business that sells expensive cars will be different from one that sells pickup trucks. Ask yourself who your customer is and what they will positively respond to. Your staff should not be dressed to suit your taste, or theirs. The customer should always be the priority.
I get asked at classes if having a dress code is illegal! Have you seen what they have to wear at McDonald’s? Of course you have the right to ask for appropriate appearance at work. Disney doesn’t permit tattoos in any form. Multiple piercings can be offensive to some and a draw to others. They are more common than they used to be. What does your customer want to see? Restaurants require tied back hair to keep it out of food. Some businesses need closed-toed shoes for safety, others for appearance’s sake.
Create your list with:
• Hair requirements, including length, bangs, tied back.
• Piercings, including multiple ear, facial or tongue. (I solved one problem by requesting a clear tongue stud for a restaurant employee)
• Tattoos, can they show? In conservative businesses, many employees wear clothing over them.
• Sleeves or not? Length?
• Belly buttons showing? Or the very worst — “the butt crack”. No kidding. Those low pants have given us a show most of us didn’t want to see.
• Pant length, do you allow cropped? Shorts?
• Shoes. Close or open toed, athletic shoes, sandals? Color? Safety shoes, or rubber soles?
If you don’t want gum-chewing, say so. Include fragrances in the dress code. Many offices, and all restaurants, do not permit perfume for obvious reasons. Mention proper hygiene. Also cover yourself by ending the dress code by saying something to the effect that “clothing and hair must be appropriate to a place of work and it’s up to management to make the final decision.”
In addition, make adjustments for seasonal changes, and write them down ahead of time. Are sandals all right? Flip Flops? Do female bank employees really need to wear panty hose in the summer? They look like they’re sweltering to me! Do we really want to see bra straps hanging down from sleeveless tank tops?
If you’ve gone this long without a dress code and are ready to implement one, involve the current staff in its creation. Their input may surprise you.
Create a way to enforce it
If you don’t already have a written warning system for employees, now is the time to implement it. Tell everyone up front that the first time will be verbal, the second will be written and go into the file, and after the third one, they may be sent home for awhile or be dismissed. It’s up to you to run your business the way it needs to be run. Success or failure belongs to you.
Taimi Dunn Gorman is the founder of the Colophon Cafe and The Doggie Diner. She is a marketing consultant and can be reached at email@example.com.