Deciphering Dress Code Policy Dos and Don’ts

Warmer days may mean a higher chance for dress code violations. Communications professional Sheri Singer offers some advice for associations when it comes to their policies.

It’s almost officially summer here in DC, which means it’s also the time of year when many are tempted to tiptoe past the boundaries of the dress code.

My kids are even doing it. Of course, we don’t have a defined dress code, per se, though the well-known rule of the house is that they have to wear clean clothes that fit and that they need to dress for the occasion. But the other week, as I rummaged through their clothes from last spring and summer, trying to discern what to keep and what to donate, here’s what happened:

  • My 3-year-old snubbed her nose at T-shirts and shorts in her size and instead donned a dress two sizes too big.
  • My 4-year-old insisted that last year’s purple unicorn T-shirt fit, even as it rose above her bellybutton.
  • My 6-year-old wanted to box away anything that wasn’t athletic shorts, including his new khakis for church.

Each of them was ignoring the dress code in their own unique ways. But here’s the thing: Grownups do this too, even—gasp—association professionals, and that’s part of the reason Sheri Singer, president of Singer Communications, led a session on “Decoding the Dress Code” at ASAE’s 2017 Great Ideas Conference. She said that “business casual,” the norm at many associations, can be particularly problematic.

“When you get into this murky area of business casual—that’s really where people have trouble because what’s business casual to me in my 50s might be really different from business casual to someone in their 20s,” Singer said.

Here are some ideas from Singer’s session for helping your staff understand and comply with the dress code.

Be specific in the policy. When it comes to writing or reviewing the association’s dress-code policy, HR should opt for specifics over generalities every time. Even if it seems juvenile to list or explain fashion faux pas to staff, HR should spell out the types of apparel that aren’t permitted, such as spaghetti straps, exercise clothes, ripped jeans, and flip flops. Specificity should help eliminate any confusion over the dress code.

Offer budget-shopping tips. Some staff members might feel that they don’t have the budget to wear nice clothes every day, so Singer recommends offering shopping advice. For instance, she advises window-shopping the styles at high-end stores, but actually purchasing at places like H&M. She also suggests paying a bit more for staples, such as black blazers or black pants, that you’ll wear again and again, and devoting less cash to trendy items and accessories—or even one-off black-tie ensembles.

Host a fashion show. In Singer’s session, she had association professionals walk the catwalk to illustrate both dos and don’ts, and it was a fun way to tackle the dress-code topic. Association HR departments could follow suit and host a mini fashion show on business-casual attire during its next all-staff meeting.

Detail the penalty for violations. When Singer queried her session of 60-some association professionals about whether they’ve sent staff home to change for dress-code violations, about half of the professionals in the room raised their hands. Whether it’s a series of warnings or an immediate “go home and change” request, the policy should be specific in its penalties for dress-code violations, so there’s no confusion when one has to be meted.

Let HR handle violations. When it comes to actually enforcing the dress code, leave it to the HR professionals. “The best way to handle violations is to let your HR department do it,” Singer said. “You don’t want the manager to do it because you don’t want to damage that relationship.”

What are your dress code tips? Please leave your comments below!



Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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