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How valuable is a workplace dress code?

Published November 7, 2022 (last updated on June 10, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Copywriter and Content Creator


In 2021, New Zealand Parliament updated its workplace dress code after a complaint by Māori MP Rawiri Waititi. Waititi was wearing a traditional pendant around his neck called a hei tiki when he was ejected from chamber. At a committee meeting the following evening, members voted to remove the requirement for a tie to form ‘appropriate business attire’ for men in the chamber. While this is a win for the community, it also highlights the value of a workplace dress code that champions inclusivity.

Employers are entitled to insist on certain standards or ways of dressing if there’s a legitimate reason for that. However, employers should be wary of enforcing a rigid approach for all staff.

The value of a workplace dress code

A good impression

When a customer walks into your business, the first thing they see is how your staff are dressed. If your staff are dressed untidily this may create a negative impression. If your workplace regularly interacts with customers, such as a restaurant, hotel or retail store, then having a dress code ensures when customers look at your employees collectively, they see uniformity and professionalism. A dress code does not necessarily mean a uniform that all employees must wear but may be a set of guidelines detailing what is or is not appropriate work attire.

Ensuring all your employees are dressed to a standard can also promote the feeling of belonging to a team, and your staff know when they are at work, they are embodying the business, so are more conscious of how they are behaving.

It helps prevent untidy or incorrect attire

While employees may grumble at having to abide by a dress code, they will soon realise the benefits to not having to decide whether or not they are dressed appropriately. It sets out clear expectations of employees, including personal grooming. This eliminates the worry of whether a shirt is going to be deemed inappropriate, as all employees need to do is check the dress code for guidance. Again, for some industries and customer-facing roles, this cleanliness and grooming makes a world of a difference.

Health and safety

In construction industries a dress code is highly important as it will typically require all workers to wear protective clothing such as steel toe boots, reflective vests and full-length pants. Employees in the food industry may require hair nets and gloves be worn for health reasons. In some workplaces, you can’t wear loose clothing if you’re working with machinery or heeled shoes if you have to work on uneven surfaces.

If you have any questions relating to a dress code in your workplace, or require assistance in implementing a dress code policy, call our 24/7 Advice line today.

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Pitfalls of a dress code

The incident with Waititi indicated that industries have expectations for staff to present themselves in a certain way and that may not be reflective of the changing landscape of the country.

A workplace dress code also boxes people up without considering cultural, personal, and religious identity. There might be situations where particular individuals can’t comply because of personal reasons. Those reasons could be related to health (like asking female employees to wear heels or makeup), disability concerns or like Waititi, cultural and religious identity.

While employers can advise employees as to what is and is not acceptable work attire, it must be a reasonable request that can be justified by the nature of the work performed and the specific industry or profession.

Creating an office dress code

A committee of diverse range of people, stakeholders, and employees should be responsible for creating your workplace dress code. It should be fair, inclusive, and respectful. You can ensure you avoid offensive or rigid rules such as:

  • Makeup for female staff

  • Heels of a particular length

  • Discriminatory rules against a particular religion, culture, or gender

If you involve employees in the discussion, you make them feel respected and valued. Your dress code should be flexible. Can employees dress casually on Fridays? Do men have to wear blazers/suits even if they are not in a client facing role?

Industry specific

You can’t implement a finance dress code in a digital agency. Understand the nuances of your industry and create an industry specific dress code. What do your employees prefer? What do they need to do their jobs efficiently?

Sharing the dress code

Once the dress code is ready, you have to share it with all employees and management. Save the complete dress code somewhere permanently and keep it easily accessible to staff. Share the dress code via email and on all your internal communication channels.

You should also bring it up in a team meeting and allow enough time for employees to ask questions or raise concerns. Share the dress code again on different occasions to remind employees of what’s expected (for example, if they are visiting clients, or an investor is on-site, or if they have to present to another company).

Listen to your employees

Once you have shared the code, listen to your employees. Invite feedback, suggestions, and comments. You can always keep improving or adapting the code. But remember to draw the line at extreme suggestions or comments.

Explain the consequences

What happens if an employee does not follow the dress code? Explain the consequences clearly and specifically. When dealing with an employee who breaches the code, you need to be:

  • Discreet- Arrange a private chat so you can tell them discretely

  • Clear- Give specific reasons why their outfit is offensive or inappropriate. If another employee has raised a complaint, do not name the employee.

  • Respectful- Remember to treat the employee respectfully. Avoid harsh or insulting language and treat them fairly.

What can employers do?

Ideally, businesses should not adopt policies that put up barriers for people’s choices and identities. Companies with prescriptive dress codes can also expose themselves to discrimination claims. Erring on the side of caution is always a good idea. A workplace dress code can help immensely when designed practically and flexibly. You can reach out to experts like Peninsula who have worked with 6,000 business owners across New Zealand in matters of employment relations.

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