Take this advice to avoid dress code horror stories

Over the last week, we've received an avalanche of e-mail about dress code difficulties. From this collective wisdom, you'll learn how to establish reasonable guidelines to avoid potential dress code problems.

It’s no surprise that IT pros prefer to work in a relaxed office environment. But some workers worry that their casual dress codes go beyond comfortable or sporty. They think some IT workers just look sloppy.

In response to our article survey, “Pack up your suit & tie: Khakis rule the IT world ,” several IT managers sent e-mail to TechRepublic, stressing the need for written dress code policies to avoid potential problems. Here is a compilation of readers’ suggestions on how to create the right dress code policy for your enterprise.
Last week, a TechRepublic survey revealed that, among those who responded, only 24 percent of IT workers wear suits and ties to work. Many employees prefer more comfortable clothes. But a relaxed dress code can lead to trouble if you don’t set some limits. In this article, you’ll learn how other IT managers have established a reasonable dress code that keeps things both professional and comfortable.
The problem with a “come as you are” dress code
A number of IT pros said that some of their co-workers are abusing the “come as you are” dress code. Here are some of the letters that described some of the more offensive fashion “don’ts” in the workplace:
  • “People began to take advantage [of the unwritten dress code] by actually wearing sweats and cut-out t-shirts,” wrote Chris Stamey, senior network engineer with Datatrace Information Services.
  • “While the IT workers wear Dockers…the rest of the departments seem to come to work dressed in…’bar get-ups.’ Sometimes to the point of being truly tacky,” wrote Andrea S.
  • “There’s a database analyst that wears flip-flops all summer that call undue attention to his nasty yellow toenails—that’s just a little too personal,” wrote Scott Sewell, manager with Datastream Systems.

Put your policy in writing
The larger your company or the larger your staff, the more important it becomes for you to put a policy in writing to avoid abuses like the ones above. According to some of the IT managers who responded to our first story, even if you have a very relaxed dress code, you need to have, in writing, a few basic rules to avoid potential problems.

Even a minimal standard in writing can prove useful. For example, several IT workers told us the only rule they had to adhere to was that they must wear shoes and socks, obliterating the possibility of ever seeing ugly toenails at work.

Many employees said they prefer a policy that gives a general outline instead of a long list of specific details. This communicates to workers that they are being trusted to use their own good judgment. For example, a typical business casual policy might be written this way, ”Maintain a professional appearance. No jeans, no sneakers, and no baseball hats allowed. You must wear a shirt or a dress with a collar and sleeves.”

Fashion advice from your peers
After reviewing the avalanche of e-mail we received, we noticed some excellent suggestions from IT managers on how to deal with the casual vs. professional dress code quandary. Here are some of the highlights from the IT fashion discussion:

Relax your dress code
If you relax the dress code, most IT pros believe you’ll reap big rewards. Certainly there are people who disagree with that theory. But most of the e-mail we received—along with results from an earlier TechRepublic survey —showed that the majority of IT workers want to work in a casual environment. It’s a cost-free way to give your workers a benefit, while improving your chances to recruit new workers.

If business casual is the norm in your office, you’ll likely see a boost in morale if you announce that blue jeans are allowed.

If you want to keep business casual in place, you can relax the dress code in a small way. For example you could add “jeans Fridays” to the policy.

Match your customers and clients
If you have a relaxed dress code, require employees to dress up on days when they expect to meet with clients, vendors, or customers.

When most of your clients change their dress code policies to fit a more casual environment, it may be the right time for you to loosen up your restrictions as well.

Choose the tool for the job
Allow tech support or other employees to “dress down” on days when they plan to crawl under desks or unpack boxes. Or, establish a dress code based on worker categories. For example, tech support workers are allowed to wear jeans while administrators must wear business casual.

Get creative
We received dozens of e-mails from IT pros that used their imaginations when coming up with a dress code policy. Here are a few examples of creative dress code options in the office:
  • Establish company “logo-wear” as a daily uniform—this includes denim shirts or golf shirts embroidered with the company logo.
  • Allow workers to wear blue jeans as a “reward” if their department meets established goals.
  • Ask employees to pay $1 to wear jeans on Fridays, then put the money toward a year-end donation fund for a local charity.
How do you handle an awkward situation with an employee who wears inappropriate attire? Does the human resources department take care of the situation? Do you send a gently worded e-mail to the offender? Post a comment below or tell us the details by e-mail.

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