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How to Approach A Dress Code Violation

That one girl in accounting keeps coming to work with her underwire practically showing and you wonder if she realises. She’s teetering on heels that were made more for a night out than for a day in the office, and then there’s the guy in the IT department with the dreadlocks, tattoos, who shows up as if it’s a beach day.

And let’s not even discuss the flip-flops.

The trouble is he’s often client facing. Is it hurting your company image you may wonder? Or do clients simply think it’s a fun, cool-vibes place to work? Companies often implement a dress code for this exact reason - to create a consistent brand image. If some employees continue to miss out key information from the dress code, how do you handle it - without embarrassing them?

Your HR team may only just have implemented a uniform policy, and you may have decided not to apply a “consequences” section in your initial policy letter and handbook, but, if you’re experiencing continued dress code violations, you may want to consider updating your policies.

If you don’t have procedures explaining the dress code fully and the consequences for non-compliance, employees may not know that what they are wearing is inappropriate. It’s HR’s job to make sure employees understand and know the dress code fully.

Here’s how to approach a dress code violation.

  • Establish what counts as a dress code violation
  • Call a private meeting with the employee
  • Update your dress code policy (if needed)
  • Educate employees on the dress code
  • Model appropriate clothing

Establish what counts as a dress code violation

First, you want to establish what counts as a dress code violation. If your dress code is not perfectly clear, it may be up to interpretation.

Make sure your dress code policy clearly states what is and isn’t appropriate. Your employee may violate the dress code by dressing too casually, being too revealing, wearing jeans, wearing wrinkled clothing, exposing tattoos, or not wearing a uniform - or any other combination of scenarios.

Speak to Your Employee Privately

If you find an employee to be in violation of company dress policy, begin by inviting the employee for a private chat in your office. Do so in a way that other co-workers are unaware that you’re bringing attention to that person’s dress as to do so publicly may embarrass the employee. 

Meet in a closed-door, private space. Never assume the employee is breaking the rules on purpose. Always begin by asking, “Are you familiar with the dress code policy?” This conversation usually goes one of two ways: no, they aren’t familiar, or yes, they are.

The Employee Does Not Know the Dress Code

If the employee says they are not familiar, you can say, “Let me share with you the dress code. Here’s policy number 3 and it shows that you’re in violation of the dress code by wearing....” Explain the policy and point to a specific policy that shows that that person is in violation of those policies. If you have no evidence to back up your claim, the employee may feel they are being personally attacked.

If you have not specifically outlined something that you consider inappropriate, you can update that item in the policy, redistribute the policy, and educate your workers.

Once you’ve brought the policy to the worker’s attention, if they live within a reasonable distance and it’s before 12 noon, have the employee come back dressed appropriately. If your company has a uniform, it’s a good idea to keep spares and issue the spare uniform to the employee for the day instead of having to have them go home. If it’s the end of the day, you can give them the rest of the day off if you feel that is appropriate.

Another option is to ask the employee if they can rectify the dress code violation themselves. They may have a spare blouse, for example, or a jacket they could wear, or the employee could simply promise to dress according to the policy in future as not to disrupt the work day.

Note: Try only to bring attention to items that really violate the dress code or could be offensive because realise that you risk embarrassing your employee and making them feel singled out. It may cause more harm to address the issue than ignoring it, and it may cost you more in that employee’s lost time than it’s worth. It’s up to HR’s discretion and the severity of the violation.

The Employee Does Know the Dress Code

With the second scenario, if the employee says that they are aware of the dress code policy, then they are breaking the rules. If they say they do know the policy, follow your procedures of whatever your employee policy manual says about write-ups for violations, consequences, and reprimanding. However, if it’s this employee’s first violation, you may choose to give that person a pass.

It’s also important to ask your employee, “Help me understand why you may not be following the policy.” There may be extenuating circumstances of which you are unaware - from disability to a rough morning to not being able to afford the uniform. In these cases, direct the course of action. Send them home for the day, for example, and then have a follow-up conversation the next day and say do they know the consequences if they violate the policy again. Or you may issue them a new uniform, or ask them to go home and change. Use your discretion.

If they continue to break rules, find out why. If you have a company-wide uniform, is the uniform fabric too hot? Is it itchy? Is it uncomfortable? Find out what the problem is and address the problem accordingly. People may violate policies because of disabilities or religious affiliation, so always talk with employees privately to avoid embarrassment.

Note: When you are bringing dress code violations to an employee’s attention, be sure to praise their work or whatever you appreciate about their performance. Make sure the employee hears something positive, and address any issues in a way as not to embarrass your employee.

If an employee has violated the dress code once, you may choose to have more severe consequences for the second and third violations in keeping with your handbook policy.

Your HR department or company attorney may dismiss an employee who refuses to comply after a third or fourth violation. Less severely, you may give the employee a leave of absence for reconsideration if changes haven’t occurred.

Update Your Dress Code Policy (if needed)

Tweak the dress code policy if employees do not understand the policy and weren’t aware they were violating the rules. Talk with your employees about the policy in general. You could always present a survey on how happy people are with the dress code and what they would change. If people are happy, they’ll be more productive and more loyal to your company.

Maybe where they work is really hot, and you’ve not allowed them to wear t-shirts so they violate the policy constantly - but, on the other hand, if they wore long sleeves they may pass out from the heat.

Be flexible and understanding when discussing policies.

Educate Employees on the Dress Code

Once your policy is in place - and updated if needs be - then you need to make sure employees are aware of it.

Sometimes, dress codes are written by legal departments in ways that are inaccessible to the average reader, so you may need to have a meeting that uses mannequins or employees as models to show what is and isn’t acceptable. You can tell employees that if they question the appropriateness of the item, then it probably isn’t appropriate.

Publicise the policy and make it known to all new employees. Employees cannot be expected to adhere to a policy they do not know about. Give regular reminders of the policy at staff meetings.

Model appropriate clothing

All management and leadership should model the dress code policy. If employees continue to see their manager violate the dress code, and then you call them into a meeting about dress code, they will feel affronted.

Have a dress code that is specific, measurable, and modeled. Make sure you aren’t discriminating your employees by pointing out violations.

Continued dress code violation may be more a problem of the dress code than the employees so be sure to make your policy clear, get feedback from employees, and approach any dress code violations cautiously.