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Oct 06, 2011

Dress Code Etiquette: Is Casual Friday Becoming Freaky Friday

By: Courtney Olson

In today’s economy, employers are often searching for creative ways to boost company morale in a cost effective way. Implementing “Casual Fridays” is one “easy” way to indulge employees. However, it seems that some employees are interpreting the gift of Casual Friday as a green light to wear whatever they please.

Fans of the NBC sitcom The Office may remember the episode in which Casual Friday was initiated and then promptly taken away after Oscar showed up in sandals, Stanley in a sweat suit, and Meredith in a microscopic dress which she accessorized with nothing…literally. This situation may be funny for viewers, but more and more employers must deal with these types of problems in real life, which is not so humorous. Nowadays it seems that the American society in general is placing more emphasis on being relaxed and comfortable, rather than professional, and dressing to express oneself, rather than dressing to impress. So how do you balance employee self expression with the company’s image in a way that keeps both morale up and business booming?

Successfully balancing employee self expression with the company’s image requires implementing guidelines for casual day dress codes. Having solid black letter policies regarding what is acceptable on Casual Friday versus what is unacceptable is essential to avoiding fashion disasters while still keeping employee morale up. Getting creative in drafting these guidelines is key to employees feeling as though they are still in control of what they can wear.

Without explaining all the details of such a policy, a company could try, for example, having “Dark Denim Friday” rather than “Casual Friday.” This is creative and adds some specificity. Employees have the option of wearing darker colored jeans with what they would otherwise normally wear to work. Darker shades of jeans tend to look more professional than lighter shades, so clients and customers are still getting the impression that they are in a professional environment while employees can still feel as though they are getting a day off from dressing up. Another creative way to retain professionalism on casual days is by implementing a “First Date Dress Code.” On First Date Dress Code days, employees are invited to go casual but only to the point where their attire would still be considered appropriate on a first date.

Protecting your company’s image not only requires keeping your employees looking professional, but also safeguarding your company from the threat of litigation. So remember that drafting any employee dress code also carries with it added responsibility. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act demands that dress codes which are a condition of employment be enforced in a nondiscriminatory manner. Dress codes also violate this Title when they improperly distinguish between employees based on gender, race, national origin or religion.

Courts, in general, will favor the employee, so it is important to scrutinize everything that is being put into any dress code policy. The most effective way to do so is to make sure that all requirements are related to legitimate business interests and apply them equally. Dress codes that are not substantively nondiscriminatory and are applied to all employees equally often hold up to legal challenge. However the “kicker” trait among protected policies is that they be clearly related to a legitimate business concern. Essentially, to protect your company it is imperative that your dress code policies, even casual day policies, be related to and justified by the type of work your company does.

Reprinted with permission from an article submitted for publication in the September, 2011 Southwest Area Human Resource Association newsletter.