Disappearing Dress Codes & Approaches to An Appearance Policy

Times are ’a changing! A look at the “history of evolution of office wear”:http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1999/11/22/269130/index.htm shows that workplace dress code norms have been changing in a big way over the last two decades.

As Lauren Goldstein of Fortune Magazine puts it: With the rise of the tech entrepreneur has come the demise of the suit as the apparel of choice for formal office wear, while in the “name of minimalism, women have thrown away most of their jewelry, make-up and shoulder pads, in favour of all-black or –gray outfits and sensible shoes.”

Changes in sartorial trends together with new laws on such things as “sexual harassment at the workplace”:http://www.prsindia.org/docs/draft/draft_sexual_harassment_bill.pdf have thrown up “new challenges for HR managers”:http://www.citeman.com/new-bill-on-sexual-harassment-at-the-workplace entrusted with the task of evolving dress codes suitable for any given workplace. The task is especially challenging in the Indian business milieu as any dress code must also take into account religious, ethnic and cultural diversities and consequent differences in sensibilities and personal ethics of employees.

HR managers tasked with the job of working out a dress code for employees – what professional managers are increasingly referring to as “an appearance policy” – have to take into account

(a) what is considered as appropriate for wearing to work for both men and women given today’s fashion trends and emphasis on power dressing,
(b) what would be considered appropriate casual wear in office and outside office situations,
(c) the various relaxations that have to be provided to take care of a “multicultural workforce”:http://www.usdaw.org.uk/equality/resource_library/1145875511_1759.html, (d) technical issues such as what should be the “dress code in hermetically sealed air-conditioned offices (a norm at most workplaces) to save energy”:http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1470-6431.1987.tb00072.x and last but not the least
(e) ergonomic and “health-related issues”:http://www.dba-oracle.com/dress_code_tattoos.htm.
To start with HR managers may do well to start with taking a look at some of the contemporary ideas influencing office wear and determining what is acceptable in the modern workplace. For an idea of the kind of specific apparels that employees are likely to dig for take a look at what “Farah Avarill, fashion correspondent of Askmen.com has to say.”:http://www.askmen.com/fashion/trends_150/162_fashion_men.html Tips on such items of office wear as “what socks to wear, what business casuals to wear, or what is the right way to buy and wear shirts”:http://www.tips4me.com/tips/malegrooming/preview_main.asp?tip=howtodress_officewear provide good starting points to start build up a written down list of acceptable office wear. Similarly, tips on “what is the least expensive wardrobe to have”:http://www.tips4me.com/tips/corporate/preview_main.asp?tip=dress_office1 can easily provide clues as to the kind of dress code that could be made applicable across the entire hierarchy in an organization.
What people wear to office is heavily influenced by the trends being aggressively marketed by various apparel brands such as Arrow or Blackberry. These are socio-cultural trends that HR managers have to keep abreast of as more and more employees are likely to opt for these fashion trends now being pushed down the throat of consumers. The new trends clearly suggest a “blurring between formal wear and casual wear”:http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/catalyst/2007/04/19/stories/2007041900150300.htm and the “casualisation” of the workplace so that the HR manager entrusted with the task of formulating “an appearance policy” must take into account the increasing prevalence of such emerging liberalism in sartorial trends.

“Dress codes for women too are being influenced by the marketing hype of the big apparel labels”:http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Sep102007/metromon2007090924396.asp in just the same way that it is happening for men. While writing out the dress code for women employees, HR managers have to cross marshy territory as they have to make a fine balance between the fundamental right of women to dress as they please and the limitations that they are forced to recognize – sometimes willy nilly – given the predominance of males in the workplace. Hence, the HR manager asked to work out an appearance policy has the enviable task of ensuring the working woman’s right to life and living with dignity in the face of a social reality where male chauvinism and consequent boorishness on the part of the Indian male remains a matter of serious concern.

HR managers grappling with an appearance policy also have to bother about its enforcement. For this reason, it necessary to work out a policy that is “consistent, specific and uniform on the one hand and employee friendly on the other.”:http://www.bpotimes.com/efytimes/fullnewsbpo.asp?edid=21256
An appearance policy is a very sensitive issue as it infringes on the personal right of individuals to wear what they please. While lack of a policy can be damaging, having a poorly formulated one can lead to even more complications.

Some of the precautions that HR managers can take to ensure successful implementation of an appearance policy are:

* wide consultations within the organization while formulating the policy – it is best to circulate a draft and then have a system for accepting, discussing and incorporating suggestions into the draft,

* once the policy is finalized it should be widely circulated among all employees within the organization,

* there should be some system for monitoring compliance and pulling up violators through an open and transparent system that cannot be misused to settle personal scores or to benefit vested interests,

* in case of violations there should be a system for consultation and counseling prior to penalization so that (a) issues do not get blown out of hand (this is especially true when violators do so on religious, cultural or ethnic grounds), (b) to guide those violators who are doing it out of some psychological triggers – counseling can be a big help, for instance, in cases of habitual non-conformism or those suffering from stress-related behavioral patterns or other psychological disorders, and (c) prepare the ground for strict punishment in case of totally recalcitrant employees.

Even if working out an appearance policy may appear to be a difficult task, this article, although hardly comprehensive, should still help those entrusted with the problem as it at least provides a few points of departure. Do write back with your comments!

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