Small Business Dress Code – The Whats, Whys and Hows

Summer-time tends to bring many things, among them: new office dress codes.  What’s the connection?  When employees start wearing flip flops and tank tops into the office, many employers decide that it is time to clarify just what is meant by “casual” attire.  The reasons to clarify a dress code are many, including: legal accountability, aesthetics for customers, distractions for employees, and simply maintaining a positive workplace environment.  A positive workplace environment is best maintained if you make a dress code and publicize it, so that no one employee feels singled out.

Many businesses have different dress codes for different types of employees.  There will be different expectations  for client/customer facing employees vs those that customers don’t interface with face-to-face.  Also, those working in “blue collar” hands on work will need to wear clothes appropriate for their work, including any safety requirements.

Shoes and Legal Issues.   Remember, even a receptionist who has a ream of paper fall on her toes can sue you for not telling her to wear closed toed shoes.  All the more so, those involved with heavier and more regular lifting (warehouse workers) should be required to wear steel toed shoes/boots.

Race Sensitivity.  Many business include in their dress code rules regarding small braids in the hair, such as “cornrows”.  Be aware that African-American employees may find this rule offensive and racist.  Professionally braided hair is neat and attractive.  On the other hand, people who do not use a professional to braid their hair, or who have thinner hair, can look much less professional in braids.  These employees might cry “foul” if others are allowed braids and they are not.  I recommend thinking carefully, and perhaps consulting a lawyer, before saying “no” to braids in your dress code.

Aesthetics/Business Image/Positive Working Environment.  Legal issues aside, most small business owners who institute a dress code do it for reasons of aesthetics, creating the proper business image, or as an attempt to create a more positive and productive work environment.


  • The bare bones dress code usually requires closed-toed shoes and bans cut offs, shorts and skirts shorter than mid-thigh, tank tops and halter tops.  Sleeveless shirts which are not tank tops are usually accepted.  T-shirts are OK, but only if they don’t have anything offensive written on them.
  • The business casual dress code generally does without shorts all together, and bans T-shirts all together.  Polo-shirts and button down shirts are acceptable for men, and blouses or polo-shirts are acceptable for women.  Many companies will specify “no facial jewelry”, and no visible tattoos.  This is the most popular dress code for most businesses today.
  • Business Professional is another step up.  It requires slacks and ties for men, often a jacket as well.  For women, it is more vague, but professional attire includes pantsuits, blouses with tailored skirts or something of a similar caliber.  This dress code is usually referred for client facing professional, or others who are representing the business to the outside world.
  • Uniforms are another option for dealing with the dress code issue.  Many businesses as varied as restaurants, medical offices, retail stores and machine shops, use uniform to help make staff readily identifiable, professional and fit in with the company image.  Many uniforms are simply a polo shirt with the company logo, or a vest or jacket which can be put over regular clothes.  With this option, many businesses will request that employees wear a particular style/color of pants as well.


  1. Think for a while about your goals in creating the dress code, and your vision for what your work force will look like.  Weigh in how they will feel about various points and how it might effect their morale.  Think about what image you want to present to your customers and what role your employees’ dress plays  in that image.  These musings should lead you to a general category of dress code (see above for categories).
  2. Research the legal issues.  I just touched on a few issues here – more are discussed in this great article on the legalities of various dress code requirements.  However, legislation does change, and it is best to check with a lawyer who specializes in human resources before finalizing your dress code.  The information here is a great guide for getting started.
  3. The next step is to publicize the dress code through internal memos, an employee handbook and email.  It is best to have a signed dress code on file, in case an issue arises.  Also, make sure that you mention the dress code when interviewing new candidates.
  4. Enforcing the dress code is even more important than having one.  This is because an unevenly enforced dress code can cause resentment amongst employees, and can even be cause for a legal complaint.  Make sure that it is written in the dress code itself the consequences of not meeting the dress code (warnings, sent home as a non-paid day, etc).  However, remember that some individuals require special accommodations due to religious, medical or other reasons.  Be fair and reasonable, but don’t ignore those who are not complying and have no excuse.  Point out why they don’t comply, what they need to do to fix it, and what will happen if it happens again.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *