Dressing for success may be a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true. Many businesspeople believe that by dressing professionally, you’re more likely to be successful. While the correlation between professional clothing and professional success can’t quite be proven, you may decide that it’s an important policy for you and your employees. As a result, you may want to develop and implement a workplace dress code.

There are many options when it comes to dress codes, including business formal, business casual and casual. You want to be sure that you have sound reasoning behind your dress code policy, as that will make it easier to communicate and enforce it amongst your employees.

1. Why Implement a Dress Code?

If you and your employees generally interact with customers, clients or vendors, a standardized dress code presents a more professional face to the outside world. It is also more standard in certain industries, such as banking, finance and real estate.

2. What Type of Dress Code Should I Enforce?

Your company type, your culture, your clients and your employees will more than likely dictate the type of dress code that’s most appropriate. If you work in an industry that is typically populated by younger people or creative workers, such as a media agency or tech startup, a more relaxed dress code might be the best fit.

3. How Should a Dress Code Be Communicated?

If you plan to enforce a dress code, your dress code policy should be clearly included in your Employee Handbook, a copy of which all new employees should receive, review and sign during their onboarding process. For current employees, changes to a dress code policy should be communicated on paper and signed by employees to confirm they acknowledge the change. Keep these filed with your employee records, and use them as references when enforcing a violation of your policy.

4. How Should a Dress Code Be Enforced?

The best way to enforce a dress code is to designate certain people within your organization to keep a look out for any violations. Typically, people who work in human resources are selected for this task, as they have the best working knowledge of the policy and are normally well-versed in how to handle delicate employee-relations situations. If your organization doesn’t have an HR department or representative, the responsibility may have to fall on you or a manager.

Even though attire may be very important to your company, remember that there will be a learning curve. Consider starting off with a warning for first- and second-time offenders; this allows new workers to adjust to your policies and offers employees a chance to adjust after implementing changes to an old policy.

After that, be consistent with all employees in regard to reprimands for policy violations. Enforcing a policy for one gender but not another, for example, could be considered discriminatory. Learn more about how to avoid legal complications in Section 6.

5. How Should a Dress Code Be Designed?

Dress codes are typically either very strict or very loose. It is generally thought that stricter dress codes are easier to enforce because they offer less room for interpretation. However, a strict dress code requires more policing.

A few of the questions you should answer when considering implementing a dress code include:

1. Why do you feel you need a dress code?

2. Who will enforce your dress code?

3. What will the consequences be if someone is found in violation of the dress code?

4. What type of dress code best suits your organization: casual, business casual or business formal?

  • Casual: Typically, a casual dress code is open to a lot of interpretation. Some casual dress codes still prohibit shorts and flip-flops, but many others allow them. The most common casual attire seen at offices, however, are jeans, sneakers and maybe a collared shirt. Keep in mind that a casual dress code doesn’t necessarily mean none at all. Even if you plan on allowing sandals and t-shirts, you might not want your workers looking like total slobs, so if there is any line you’d like to draw, make sure you do so in your dress code upon hiring.
  • Business Casual: This is another type of dress code that can be widely interpreted, but it typically excludes employees from wearing sneakers, jeans and non-collared shirts (for men) at the office. It may also prohibit employees from wearing excessive jewelry, branded clothing or even khakis. A business casual dress code is something you can play around with, but just make sure to take into consideration the differences between what men and women think is business casual. You don’t want either sex feeling like the other has a more lax dress code. It may be best to hold a panel with a few higher-ranking men and women within your company to decide the exact parameters for a business casual dress policy.
  • Business Formal: This is the most restrictive dress code and precludes employees from wearing everything from jeans to non-collared shirts. Men are typically required to wear black, blue or grey business suits without any elaborate designs; dress shoes and subdued ties are also generally required. Women are usually restricted to pantsuits or skirts suits; they may also wear conservative blouses with skirts that should be knee-length and not too tight. Heels shouldn’t be too high; open-toed shoes are typically restricted, and accessories should be kept to a minimum. For both men and women, in general, a business formal dress code is as conservative as it gets (unless you want them showing up in tuxes).

6. How to Avoid a Lawsuit When Enforcing Your Dress Code

In general, your dress code should be based on social norms, shouldn’t differ greatly between men and women, and shouldn’t impose a greater burden on a specific group of workers. You must also be open to accommodate certain religions and nationalities whose beliefs may prevent them from wearing certain garb or conforming to grooming policies, as well as any disabled workers who may be incapable of or uncomfortable with dressing a certain way.

More specifically, when dealing with different sexes, dress and grooming requirements for men and women should be relatively similar, but reasonable differences can be acceptable. For example, requiring men to have short hair but women to have long hair is, for the most part, acceptable because it reflects current social norms. But requiring women to wear uniforms while allowing men to wear their own personal attire could get you in trouble, as this puts a burden on women that is not imposed on men.

Religious beliefs and national and racial norms should also be considered when enforcing dress codes. For example, people of the Sikh religion are never allowed to cut their hair, so enforcing a ban on facial and long hair for Sikh men can be construed as religious discrimination. Similarly, it is proven that some races have a physical sensitivity to shaving, and imposing a clean-shaven rule on these races may be interpreted as racial discrimination. Additionally, prohibiting traditional religious and national garb (i.e. a burqa or an Indian sari) could also open you up to legal repercussions.

Challenges to your dress code should be approached carefully and empathetically. Try to be as open as possible to altering your policy to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs or heritage. If your dress and grooming policy is rooted in practical business purposes (i.e. long hair could be dangerous when working with machinery), it may be fine to be strict on your dress code, but you should always consult a lawyer when addressing policy challenges based on religion or heritage.

Deciding to create a dress code for your business is an important decision that can have long-lasting effects on your company’s culture and your employees. It’s best to truly understand and examine all of the reasons why you want to institute a dress code and consult various members of your organization to ensure that the dress code will be well-received by all.