Crash course in ... What to wear at work

Oh dear, the weather's warming up and we've got the usual problem: the women are turning up at the office in micro-skirts while the men are sporting Bermudas. Suddenly, the organisation's entire dress sense has gone to pot, and customers and suppliers must feel that they've stumbled on a beer garden. How do you keep some sartorial order?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Draw up a dress code. 'As an employer, you are allowed to impose rules and requirements on the style or standard of dress your employees wear, but it must be subject to a test of reasonableness,' says Tony Hyams-Parish of legal firm Rawlison Butler. 'If people are working in a factory, it's reasonable to ask them to have their hair in a safety hat.' If you put the dress code in your employment contract, you are in a stronger legal position against anyone breaching it.

Don't be proscriptive. According to a former HR director, people resent nothing more than being told what they cannot wear, so if you start stipulating skirt-lengths, you're inviting someone to find a way round the rules. 'Most employers just ask employees to dress "appropriately",' says Sally Humpage of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. 'You should trust your people to do the right thing.'

Be even-handed. 'Be mindful not to discriminate on grounds of gender or race,' says Hyams-Parish. That doesn't mean if men have to wear ties, then women must do too. It does mean that they should be subject to equivalent requirements in terms of smartness.

Try a fashion vox pop. Consult your people on how the organisation should dress; they are the ones doing the jobs and will often have the best idea of what is fit for purpose. If they buy into a dress code, it's far more likely to be successful.

Give your staff a dressing-down. A survey by employment law firm Peninsula found that both employers and employees believe dress-down days improve productivity. Mike Huss, senior employment law specialist at the firm, says more casual dress is becoming the norm, and employers should judge their people on performance rather than on appearance. But he adds: 'In certain situations, such as interviews and important meetings, a formal appearance is still very much the status quo.'

Consider a uniform. The great thing about uniform, as many parents will testify, is that it sidesteps the entire debate about what's right to wear. In practice, though, uniform is most appropriate in organisations where the people are an expression of the brand. If you have to go down this route, make sure your employees feel good about their uniform.

Do say: 'All staff should wear dress appropriate to the circumstances; when meeting clients, men and women should both wear business suits; in the office, smart casual attire is acceptable.'

Don't say: 'I expect to see all men in a suit and tie, whatever month, day or time it is. Women can wear what they like so long as it's sexy.'

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime