Enforce your dress code without making your employees hate you

It's Spring Break (WOOOO! Par-TAY!), and so it's the season to warn women to dress appropriately, right?

Ladies, please wear one-piece bathing suits during business hours. Your cooperation is appreciated.


The Honorable Richard Kopf, a federal judge in Nebraska who blogs, got in trouble this week because he (1) blogged that he noticed and enjoyed looking at a young female lawyer who wore short skirts and low-cut blouses to court (although, he noted, she was the consummate professional), and yet at the same time he (2) blogged that women really ought to not dress in such a way that other women would call them "ignorant sl*ts."

I know, you don't believe that a federal judge would say that in print. But he did -- here it is!


We must be real squares here in North Carolina because I have never seen a female lawyer looking "sl*tty" in court.

In church, yes. In court, no.

I am sure that Judge Kopf meant well, and he is not the first person to try to advise women about dressing modestly during the warmer months. If women are really dressing sl*ttily or sloppily in professional settings, then they need to be told. And, yet, I cringe when I see "advice to ladies" like this. It comes across as condescending, and -- as one who never flashes more than the lower two-thirds of a leg at work (if that) -- I bristle at the fact that this "helpful advice" is always addressed to "women" in general.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for employers (and judges!) who need to caution women employees on dressing appropriately without ticking off every professionally-dressed woman in your workplace.

*Put a general dress code into place in December, or sometime before the weather gets balmy. That way, everyone will be on notice about the rules before things get personal. Be specific about the things that you really care about. If your dress code is "business casual," explain in the policy what that means for men and what it means for women. If your dress code is "business," you might still want to specify for both sexes, "pants that aren't too tight," and for women, "a skirt no shorter than one inch above the knee," and "no visible cleavage," or something like that. Don't have too many rules or be stricter than necessary, like these guys -- if someone has a "regulation" skirt and modest blouse but the blouse is pink and she wears a tidy ponytail, maybe you can give in on that.

(Judges, you might want to consider incorporating a dress code for attorneys and paralegals in your local rules. It would fit in great in the "courtroom decorum" section.)

"Dress accordingly, boys and girls!"


*Once you have your general policy in place, consider issuing further warnings only to the offenders. Yeah, I know this can be delicate. But you single out people at work all the time (for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, of course). Treat violations of your dress code the same way.

*If you absolutely cannot stand the idea of singling anyone out, then warn everybody, and I mean everybody. Not just the women attorneys. Not just the women. Everybody. Male, female, other. One reason that women get so annoyed at these "guidelines" is that they tend to be both overinclusive (by being addressed to all women) and underinclusive (by omitting the other 49 percent of the population). You are allowed to be overinclusive, but only if you go all the way. Maybe you can even find a few things that guys are doing wrong and add that to your memo.

You've never seen a woman saggin', have you? Didn't think so, and in some places it's against the law!

*If one or two employees keep breaking the rules after you've done all of the above, then deal with them in accordance with your policy. Don't keep bothering everybody else with it. (P.S. It is not sexual harassment to tell a female employee that she needs to cover her [fill in the blank] when she's at work.)

*Offer "dress for success" help to those who need it and will accept it. Some people honestly have trouble understanding exactly how they need to dress in various work-related situations. It may be ignorance, not insubordination. In some cases, individualized guidance from a tactful, discreet, and knowledgeable source may be welcomed and appreciated.

OK, now you're set. Get on out there and party like you're a Northwestern student on a football scholarship! (Hey, kids -- did you know that spring break is only for students? Employees don't get it. At least, not unless they "spend" their vacation time. Keep that in mind.)

You might also find this recent Constangy bulletin of interest:

By Gary Wheeler, "'Potential' Qualification for FMLA Leave Doesn't Cut It, Appeals Court Says."

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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