Dress Code Challenges in Multi-Generational Workplaces

Fashion is always changing, and societal norms constantly shift to reflect the latest trends. While these shifts often start outside the business world, changing fashion trends inevitably creep their way into the workplace, often creating dress code headaches for employers.

Differing intergenerational expectations can lead to conflict if what “business casual” means isn’t defined.”

Working in an office or professional setting used to mean business attire – there were a prescribed and well-understood set of rules that went along with what appropriate business attire meant.

But with the overwhelming shift towards “business casual” dress codes, ambiguity has emerged around the expectations for appropriate workplace wear. The generational gap in many workplaces highlights the wide-ranging interpretation of “business casual”. To some Generation Y and Zers, yoga pants and Converse sneakers make the business casual cut (if it’s not holey or stained, it’s business casual!), while to more mature workers, business casual means business formal, without the tie. These differing inter-generational expectations can lead to conflict if what “business casual” means isn’t defined within the organization.

In today’s multi-generational workplaces, getting everyone on the same page when it comes to your dress code can be a huge challenge. And as employers and leaders, how do you enforce a dress code that is fair, consistently applied, and doesn’t discriminate?

1. Have a policy. We say this a lot, but putting expectations in writing really is that important. How can team members adhere to expectations they don’t know exist? Have a dress code policy and make sure your employees know about it!

2. Check your personal bias. Is the outfit in question inappropriate, offensive, or in direct violation of your dress code, or is it just not to your taste? Before you decide to address an employee’s work wardrobe head-on, check in to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and not just because their aesthetic doesn’t match yours. There are other reasons to tread carefully too – dress codes that unfairly target one gender (ex: requiring female servers to wear high heels), discriminate based on a protected ground like religion (whether directly or indirectly), or otherwise infringe on civil rights should all be ditched in favour of common sense rules that are directly related to occupational requirements.

3. Address issues sensitively. Sometimes an employee’s look just isn’t appropriate for your workplace or industry, or flouts your dress code, and when that happens, it becomes a concern that needs to be addressed. But how DO you tell an employee their clothing is too provocative, their tattoo is offensive, or their yoga pants don’t qualify as “business casual”? Carefully.

What we wear and how we show up to work is an expression of who we are as individuals, and when having conversations about dress code breaches, it’s important to remember that we all have a lot invested in our outward appearance. While asking someone to adjust their look to adhere to the dress code might not seem like a big deal, it’s a conversation that should be approached tactfully and in private.

Your Engaged Assignment: Don’t have a dress code policy? Now’s the time to create some clarity! Use the above tips, this guide, and a common-sense approach to determine what an appropriate dress code looks like for your organization.