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Decoding Dress Codes

Most places of business have some sort of dress code, but what if a large company doesn’t and then decides it wants to implement one? Such was the case with Wal-Mart and the backlash its new policy triggered. This can provide useful information for employers that may be thinking twice about instituting new rules.

Regardless of where one works, there are always certain rules to follow. If a business does have a dress code, in an office setting it’s usually to keep people from wearing unprofessional attire. In an industrial setting, this ensures that people are wearing safety-related gear.

In the Wal-Mart example, they decided to implement a dress code that mimicked a uniform policy. The difference, according to an article inHuman Resource Executive Online titled What to Wear, is that most uniforms require an employer to pay for, maintain, and clean the items. If safety gear is required for compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, then a business must pay for them.  But Wal-Mart found a loophole in that they simply stated a dress code of khaki pants and a collared shirt, defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as “street clothes.” Furthermore, the senior-level staff at Wal-Mart probably reasoned that most people already have these articles of clothing in their wardrobe.

While that may be true, the backlash came when employees who were already making a low salary now had to add the expense of these clothes.  This dress code requirement quickly ballooned into a public relations nightmare for Wal-Mart and highlights the fine line that a business must walk to keep its costs in check, while maintaining good morale among its employees and the public.

If a business decides to introduce a new, or modify an existing, dress code policy, it should consider all ramifications before implementation. Plus, the decision makers need to figuratively put themselves into the shoes of the employees being affected by the policy. Will the added cost be too much of a burden? Will the public look at this as a good thing in terms of an improved, professional appearance, or will they look at it as just another way the company is shifting costs to its already weary workforce? And finally, can such a requirement spur the heavy burden of a class action lawsuit?

It’s clearly important for a company to have its employees looking their best, but at the same time it should tread carefully when enforcing a new and unpopular dress code policy.