Implementing a dress code for the first time: here’s how you do it

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When your company enforces a dress code, it’s common to update it occasionally. Times change, and so do our ideas of what is and isn’t appropriate. But how does it work when you’re implementing a dress code for the first time? What should you pay attention to, and how do you ensure that it is well-received by the staff? In this article, I, together with labor law attorney Suzanne Meijers, provide tips on how to best approach this process.

Implementing a dress code for the first time: here's how you do it
Photo: Jason Goodman – Unsplash

Implementing a dress code for the first time: here’s how you do it

Before diving into the tips, I want to emphasize that every organization is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The advice in this article is primarily aimed at companies where a neat appearance is appreciated. Different rules apply to functional workwear and personal protective equipment (PPE). For these, it is best to consult health and safety guidelines and relevant legislation.

Curious about how to establish a representative dress code? Read on.


1. The reason for the dress code

When a dress code is introduced for the first time, there is usually a reason behind it. There might be ongoing debates about what is appropriate to wear at work, or there could have been an incident.

For instance, I once experienced a colleague being sent home for wearing candy-pink pants to work at a department store. Until that moment, the only rule was that we had to wear a dark blue polo shirt with a logo. There were no specific rules for pants, but everyone knew that dark, neutral pants were best. After this incident, my employer decided to set rules for pants at work.

When drafting a dress code, it is important to clearly state the reason for its implementation. Sometimes companies introduce a dress code without explaining why. As a result, people start speculating, which can lead to rumors. By being clear about the reason, everyone immediately understands what is considered inappropriate.


2. Check the legal side

When you, as an employer, establish a dress code, you are exercising your right to give instructions. This means you have the right to do so, but you cannot demand just anything. This may seem obvious, but many people are unaware of what they can and cannot require. For instance, I have helped several companies draft dress codes and noticed that companies often prefer women to wear heeled shoes with skirts or dresses. However, just because you find something personally attractive doesn’t mean you can mandate it.

Suzanne Meijers, labor law attorney, advises companies to first carefully consider what is truly necessary. “Dress codes must be proportionate to the company’s image and required representativeness. Flip-flops in a call center might be fine, but probably not in an office where clients regularly visit. Also, if safety is a priority, work boots cannot be replaced with open-toed shoes during summer heat. In some cases, you need to weigh the interests,” Meijers explains.


3. Engage in dialogue

Before finalizing the dress code, it is crucial to discuss it with the staff. If you skip this step, people are likely to resist, feeling that something is being imposed from above. This is especially sensitive when it concerns appearance.

If your company has a works council, Meijers advises involving them as well. In the Netherlands, you are legally required to do so. Make it clear in these discussions that the rules apply to everyone within the company or certain roles. You cannot discriminate based on gender or body type.


4. Document the dress code

Next, it’s important to document the dress code. The best way to do this is in a dress code handbook. Besides textual explanations, you can use images to show what is and isn’t allowed. Don’t forget to mention who employees can approach with questions. It’s essential that everyone knows exactly what is meant, and this way, you can avoid many disputes. The point of contact can be a manager who also owns the handbook, as someone needs to be responsible for future adjustments.

Meijers advises having employees sign for receipt of the handbook. “For new employees, simply include an article in the employment contract stating that the dress code has been provided and that the employee is aware of it. This is known as an incorporation clause. You might also add that the regulations, including the dress code, may change from time to time and that the latest version is always available via the intranet.”


5. Evaluate the dress code

Once you have discussed, documented, and published the dress code, for instance, on the intranet, most of the work is done. Now, it’s important to ensure that people do not forget about this document. According to Meijers, it is advisable to occasionally bring the handbook to people’s attention. You can do this via email, during meetings, or on the (online) notice board.

It is likely that at some point you will receive questions or suggestions regarding the handbook. It’s important to gather this information and let employees know that it will be discussed. Schedule an evaluation moment with the same people with whom you drafted the dress code. How often this is necessary is hard to predict, but it is certain that it is a living document. A dress code is very useful but sometimes needs some maintenance.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me.



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