Thanks to the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, the concept of dress codes has undergone somewhat of a revolution (although, some might say devolution). At the offices of Facebook, finding someone sporting the Brooks Brothers pin-stripe “dress-to-impress” look is more rare than seeing someone sporting a computer running MS-DOS. Instead, they’ve taken a laissez-faire approach to dress, one that says, “We don’t care what you’ve got on as long as you’re productive.” With more new businesses assuming this attitude or, “We don’t care what you wear as long as you’re not making people uncomfortable,” we thought it was time to pause for a moment and ask: Should your small business have a dress code?

What exactly is a dress code and why is one necessary?

To foster and promote a more relaxed workspace, businesses have created all types of dress policies that reflect fashion trends. These policies are often as simple as saying, “business casual.” However, the problem starts when you realize some employees think business casual means showing up in gym shorts and tank tops–which is “business casual” only if your business is selling gym shorts and tank tops.

Lots of small businesses have uniforms

If you think about it, there are lots of small businesses where employees go beyond having a dress code and require employees to wear uniforms. Others have de facto uniforms, as their work demands a certain type of shoe or boot, aprons, cover-wear, etc. (Think construction, distribution, healthcare.) The “what to wear” issue is more about small businesses that are based in offices with little face-to-face customer interaction.

Employees who call on customers and clients should dress like customers or clients

If your work involves customers or clients coming to your office (or store, etc.), the entire dress code policy is not about workers, but about the customer. Dress like the customer or client dresses. There are exceptions, however. A lawyer visiting the office of a designer may expect an office filled with creative looking workers. The bottom line: Use common sense and err on the side of making customers not feel uncomfortable.

Set basic guidelines for a dress code, don’t create a 40-page manual

Focus on keeping your definition of the appropriate dress for work as something like, “Nice jeans and a collared shirt for guys, nice jeans and an appropriate top for women.” If you get too specific, like Swiss bank UBS did in 2010 with their 43-page dress code pdf, you’ll most likely cause an uproar and have to revise it a year later (which they did).

  1. Be department specific. Warehouse employees shouldn’t be required to wear a suit and tie, and your sales department (particularly if they’re meeting clients face-to-face), shouldn’t be wearing jeans and Timberlands.
  2. Avoid distractions. Offensive tattoos, Daisy Duke jorts, mini skirts, revealing tops, etc. Anything that doesn’t leave much to imagination—or too much to imagination—leave it at the door. You’ll know it when you see it. And your customers will, too.
  3. Address problems immediately and privately. If an employee wears something inappropriate, or violates the policy in any way, pull them aside quickly. Do all you can to not embarrass the employee, but make sure you quickly and directly explain the issue and the policy. Though it can be awkward, just remember your brand and image are always on the line. You’ve got to protect both at all times.

(Feature image: AtomicRED via Wikimedia Commons)