Addressing Your Summer Dress Code

Ah, summertime in Kansas City! With the heat index revving up, it’s time to break out the T-shirts, shorts, sundresses and flip-flops. That is, if folks are heading out to the K, the lake or otherwise chilling out on their own time. But what if they’re going to work in an office? Aren’t they entitled to be comfortable during the steamy summer months?

The answer is two-pronged: Yes, employees are entitled to dress comfortably—but not in ways that steam up the office too much. And employers are entitled to set a dress code that fosters a business-like atmosphere—even in summertime.

Creating an Effective Policy

Ideally, businesses already should have in place dress code policies that set the rules for summer attire. Those that don’t should formulate such policies and put them in writing.

Even when companies have dress codes in place, employees often push the envelope, showing more skin or dressing more casually than they would at other times of the year. But when employers have clearly written policies, employees are less likely to say they’re being singled out or discriminated against if told to go home and change clothes.

Formulating an effective, enforceable dress code policy requires employers to ask themselves some questions. For example:

  • What kind of work environment do we want to establish?
  • Will employees need to interact directly with customers, and does that affect how they should dress?
  • What kinds of attire are consistent with the culture of our workplace?
  • What has been the practice within our geographic area and our industry? What works for others in your industry most likely will work for your organization.
  • What is the most effective way to communicate company standards to employees? In the case of an existing dress code policy, a summer reminder or meeting to reiterate company policy may be necessary.

Don’t Discriminate

Dress code policies cannot be used to discriminate against employees on the basis of protected traits such as age, gender, race, national origin, religion or disability. One of the most important factors to remember is this: Although a dress code policy can be nondiscriminatory as written, employers can create problems if they choose not to enforce the policy equally among all employees. Selective enforcement can lead an employee to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that he or she is being discriminated against.

Further, in certain circumstances, unless doing so would result in an undue hardship, an employer may be required to modify its dress code or permit exceptions if an employee requests an accommodation due to religious beliefs or because of a disability.

A dress code that is discriminatory, poorly formulated and poorly communicated or enforced can contribute to a dysfunctional work force, and could leave the employer at risk for a discrimination lawsuit. Conversely, a well-formulated, effectively communicated and evenly enforced dress code can help your work force function as a cooperative team.