Warmer weather is coming, and with it comes the inevitable parade of heat-provoked fashion crimes, misdemeanours and flat-out professional image killers.
So how can employers lay down an office dress code that doesn’t come off as didactic but nevertheless prevents employees from clocking in wearing flip-flops, shorts or other inappropriately casual or revealing items while boldly exposing their latest ink?
Simple, according to Kristina Hidas, Vice President, HR Research and Development with the Human Resources Professionals Association: draft a detailed dress code itemizing discouraged clothing choices. Distribute it at the beginning of every year and have employees sign off on it.
“That makes it more likely that employees will read it and be aware of policy,” says Hidas, who researches issues in the Canadian workplace. “Sometimes people make mistakes without knowing it’s in the policy. It’s much easier to have things outlined than to deal with it cold when it arises later.”
Adds Byron Thomas, long-time career development director at Toronto’s Herzing College, “I work with a lot of employers via our student internships and job placement assistance. And most expect an employee to show up professionally dressed. Even if it’s humid or rainy, there is still a visual expectation on that employee.”
And what exactly constitutes unsuitable summer gear? Says Hidas: “Tank tops, tube tops, dresses with spaghetti straps, sleeveless dresses, flip-flops, beach shoes or overly revealing clothing which I know could be open to interpretation but we are a client-facing company so that informs our policy.”
Thomas is blunter. “There is no excuse for open-toe sandals or shoes. I don’t care how pretty your pedicure is,” he howls. “Nobody wants to see your toes. Even if you think people aren’t looking at your feet, they are. It’s just bad so don’t do it.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable for men to wear shorts or for women to wear skirts that are higher than the knee,” Thomas continues. “But I think it’s OK for a man not to wear a tie during the summer months because those can be really restricting. And you want to hide visible tattoos.”
Ah, tattoos. Like proper internet usage and explaining the fax machine to the intern, they are a distinctly 21st century workplace concern. “They are so mainstream and almost every professional has one,” confirms Thomas who rocks about 15 of his own.
So show or don’t show? Does it depend on the image – butterflies are OK, skulls are forbidden? Is a reaction bound to be generational? Thomas thinks so.
“Out of respect for my coworkers from another generation, I cover them up,” he says, admitting he wears long-sleeve shirts in August. “The only time my work colleagues will see my tattoos is during off-hours at our annual meetings in Florida.
Otherwise, tattoos are just not acceptable in an office setting.”
Both Thomas and Hidas agree that the advent of Casual Fridays has obscured the rules somewhat, but even then, care should be taken to uphold a professional look, especially if your company deals with the public. If an employee arrives in a halter top and cut-offs, Hidas favours gently taking them aside to discuss the issue.
“You don’t want to deal with someone aggressively,” she says. “People are coming to work, they want to get a lot done, they want to be comfortable and that’s great. But you have to draw the line somewhere and I think there are collaborative ways of doing it.”
“The key is remembering work-life balance,” says Thomas. “Same with dress which should be one way at work and another way for running to the grocery store on Saturday. Employers have an environment that are maintaining and they have the right to do that.
“I may be old school but I kind of like to be told what’s expected of me so I can follow through every day.”