Wardrobe Wars (aka Weaponized Work Wear)

March 05, 2024
Inside HR
HR Compliance
Read time: 3 mins

Dress codes can be problematic. Employers generally do not want their employees to show up for work in inappropriate clothing, so dress and grooming codes are implemented to keep the workplace from looking like a gym or a nightclub. Conversely, many employees believe their employers’ dress code does not allow them to express their individuality or allow for comfort.

Granted, dress and grooming codes have undergone a considerable change over the last 30 years or so. My initial foray into the business world was in the late 1980s. I lived in California and was changing careers. During a meeting with a recruiter, she stated that I possessed FOA. When I questioned what in the heck that was, she said, “front office appearance.” I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or flattered. Thankfully, since then, we have received guidance from federal and state laws which discuss that dress codes cannot be more onerous for one gender over another. COVID and working remotely also changed the workforce’s expectations—working in jeans or sweats all the time became the norm.

I came across several humorous articles showcasing how a dress/grooming code was weaponized (the lengths employees went to strictly comply with their company’s dress codes when their chosen garb resulted in a write-up). Several companies, whose dress code did not allow shorts for men but allowed women to wear skirts, found themselves with men in kilts and other skirts when the weather became unseasonably hot. Another found itself with an employee who came to work each day in cosplay. It didn’t violate the company dress code, unlike the outfits the employee wore before being written up. Yet another, who worked for a catering company, wore red Chuck Taylor high-tops without issue until a new manager told her she couldn’t wear them anymore. She complied, arriving for work the next day in lime green and white checkered Vans. Finally, there is the case of the female employee, hired after only telephone interviews, who was told, upon arriving for her first day of work, that she couldn’t continue to work with her signature pink hair. Apparently, the dress/grooming code required “natural” hair color. Her solution? She purchased a number of cheap wigs (all with natural hair color, but the cheaper, the better) to wear to work—including a yellow-blond mullet, a curly brown version with an attached beard (yes, she wore the beard, too), and a George Washington-looking powdered wig. These all met the company’s dress and grooming standards.

The lesson here is to question your dress code. Does it include rules that may date back several decades? Does it prohibit your employees from doing their best work? Recent surveys indicate that comfortable employees are more productive! Does it create malicious compliance? If so, it is time to review and reconsider your requirements.

Your policies likely will go beyond one company’s, whose policy simply was: “Employees must wear clothes,” but as Sir Richard Branson said:

“If people got rid of unnecessary hierarchies and formalities, they would have a lot more fun and get a lot more done.”