Supporting Inclusive Dress Codes

Oct 22, 2022 | #WelcomingSpaces

by Laura Cormier |

As youth, our clothing has often been a way for us to express who we are, not to represent a company or profession. Therefore, youth may need support from employers when figuring out what to wear, whether their workplace has a dress code, and what that dress code is. Feeling as though our work environment is a secure place to talk about clothing becomes increasingly important for youth who may be financially constrained or who have trouble feeling like themselves on a regular basis, without the added constraint of a dress code. 

Clothing also impacts our mental health, which can carry over into work life in many ways. An inclusive dress code is a way of creating physically welcoming and youth-friendly environments. With this piece, my goal is to encourage you, the employer, to consider whether dress codes are truly a necessary component of the environment you are creating, and if so, to offer some advice on how to make your dress codes inclusive and accessible to young people. 

Youth Opinion on Dress Codes and How to Modernize Your Dress Codes   

What I would consider to be my first true experience in the working world was in the front-of-house restaurant setting. No open-toed shoes, no ripped jeans, no open backs or cleavage, no chipped nail polish. This made sense to me – I was handling food and was one of the first faces of the business, so things had to look put together. In a way, I feel as though this shaped the outlook on dress codes that I maintain today. 

I always felt as though I could be myself in the clothes I wore to work. I appreciated the fact that there were no clothing items that I had to wear, and only a few that I couldn’t. As I see it, this is how dress codes should be – while there may be pieces (aside from religious/cultural symbols) that employees are instructed not to wear, they should never be forced to wear specific clothing. My wardrobe tendencies from working at the restaurant carried over into my work with the CEI, which had quite a relaxed dress code – in fact, I’m not sure if I was even informed of any dress rules. I think it’s safe to give youth employees the benefit of the doubt to know what is and is not right to wear in their respective work environments – give them this credit and their level of comfort at work will be sure to improve (Gonzalez, 2019). This can be achieved through straight-forward and neutral dress codes that everyone in the workplace can relate to (Prozinski & Mazanec, 2021). There may still be cases in Nova Scotia where uniforms are assigned unnecessarily; to me, this really dichotomizes the human and the employee. It is my view that uniforms in place for reasons other than safety should be phased out. 

The purpose of a dress code is to be practical and to purport a secure, beneficial work environment. Ask yourself whether your dress codes do this, or if they uphold problematic cultural norms (e.g., that male employees must have short haircuts). The only way to get a sense of your employee’s dress code perceptions is to build a strong built relationship with them – a process that begins before an incoming employee is even introduced to the dress code. Relationship building gives youth a sense of comfort in the workplace that will allow them to come to you with their concerns surrounding dress code, which in turn allows your dress code to be a dynamic, ever-changing aspect of your work environment. Put yourself in the shoes of your employees. Your dress code features may have negative impacts on some employees more than others, for example, some parts of a dress code might be easier to follow for an able-bodied person than for a disabled person. By getting to know employees and having flexible dress codes that can be easily accommodated from person to person, employers will gain insight into why employees wear the things that they do (e.g., for religious reasons) before telling them that they are no longer allowed to (Gonzalez, 2019). Less is also more; consider lifting any policy pieces that do not serve a purpose in your work setting or that are impractical and draw out youth’s insecurities (Prozinski & Mazanec, 2021).  

 

The Benefits of Self-Expression 

A positive work environment encourages employees to bring their individual knowledge and perspectives to the table, and clothing can be a way of doing this (Septem, 2022). At the beginning of a Feminist Theory course that I took last semester, my professor started us off with an activity called, “Where do you know from?” This exercise was developed by Eugenia Zuroski (2020), an associate professor in English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University. Through reflection questions such as, “Where do your interests come from?” and “What are your intellectual interests?”, our responses allowed others in the classroom to get a better sense of where a person’s ideas were derived from when they spoke. With some modification, I think the activity could just as easily be used at work, not only to improve one’s understanding of the perspective people speak from, but also the context that they place around dress.  

Feeling as though your self-expression is being muffled can have adverse influences on people that are likely to be sustained outside of work. While people may always be able to sense who they are from their internal qualities, not being able to share this in an outward manner can be isolating (Septem, 2022). How your employees choose to do this should be a collaboration between who they are (their self-expression) and the persona that you and your organization are trying to portray. Before engaging in this collaboration, though, consider whether the image you are trying to convey is an inclusive one. 

 

Empathetically and Open-Mindedly Informing Employees of Dress Code              

Throughout your onboarding process, inform youth that they can come to you with any questions or concerns that they have regarding dress. You do not necessarily need to have a formalized dress code prepared for youth to read on their first day, but be prepared with some examples of what suitable attire might look like in your workplace so that youth aren’t surprised. In the unlikely case that a youth employee comes to work wearing clothing that is, for whatever reason, completely ill-suited for the setting you are in, assess the situation before confronting them with any new information. Would this attire still be inappropriate if one of your other employees (e.g., a male employee, versus a female one) were wearing it? If not, consider letting it go and evaluating how your biases are impacting the situation. Will the person feel embarrassed if you address what they are wearing right now, today, as they still have on the clothing item(s) in question? If yes, delay your response to the situation and talk about it privately later. Does the employee’s dress cross the line in terms of safety protocol? If not, consider again whether the attire poses any actual threat and how your biases have played into your views. As I see it, an employee should never be sent home from their job as a result of their attire (except for in extreme conditions where clothing may be offensive, e.g., graphic clothing displays of racial profanity). The concern for employment is a much bigger issue and should be considered with the utmost importance compared to the concern of attire. 

While your organization may have a set of dress guidelines on your backburner, it is not imperative for this to be part of your onboarding process with youth. From here, youth will know that they are entering an empathetic space where self-expression is accepted, but also a space where attire and outward portrayal are not top priorities. Such an approach to informing youth about attire in your workplace will give them the vote of confidence that they need when figuring out what to wear to work.  

 

The Gender Aspect 

When work environments have dress codes that necessitate conformity to what is expected of a certain gender, this puts employees in a box from the get-go (particularly for non-binary folks who may feel as though they don’t fit neatly within female or male expectations) (Gonzalez, 2019; Prozinski & Mazanec, 2021). An example of this would be a requirement for women to wear high-heeled shoes, which not only gives them an extra element to worry about as compared to their male counterparts but can sexualize their bodies and enforce unnecessary gender norms in the process. When this happens at work, youth who don’t subscribe to traditional gender norms must bear the weight each day of dressing as someone who is not really them and adjusting their outward self-expression (discussed above) to match what others think it should be (Gonzalez, 2019). Assess whether the wardrobe restrictions you impose on employees are equally applicable to everyone or if women and non-binary people may be singled out and subsequently burdened to a further extent (Prozinski & Mazanec, 2021). 

Supporting Youth to Meet Dress Codes – Dress Codes on a Budget  

As mentioned many times throughout this piece, a neutral dress code where youth are given the opportunity to dress in their own style at work is something that we can handle. However, if youth are required to sport highly specific and at times expensive clothing items to work (e.g., a full suit), this may not be manageable for everyone — especially for youth who may be coming directly out of post-secondary education, or if their job with you is their first in the “real” working world — finances can be a very real issue. This concern is only exacerbated by the current housing crisis, inflation, and heightened gas prices in the province. The current case of youth employment is different than with any prior generation because of these factors, and because of the reality that youth must now spend much more time on their schooling before permanently joining the workforce while looking for more meaningful work.  

Wherever there are these more fixed dress codes, there must also be support for youth to be able to meet those requirements for your organization. One example of how to do this could be providing a wardrobe allowance. This gesture would not only be a testament to your new employees of how much you value their presence in your workplace, but it would also demonstrate to them your awareness of the financial constraints that many young people find themselves up against (e.g., unaffordable rent). A wardrobe allowance should be provided universally to employees, not on a needs-basis, as youth should not feel a pressure to disclose their financial situation to you in order to receive the available compensation. Additionally, there may be more cost-effective services in your area to which you can direct your employees if they have chosen to confide in you that they still struggle to keep up with grooming policies due to their current budget, such as Nova Scotia Community College’s Aesthetic Clinics at various locations across the province, The Opportunity Shop in Antigonish, and The Has Bin thrift store in Halifax. 

In sum, I believe it’s acceptable for there to be certain clothing items that employees may be asked to avoid, but that dress codes begin to border on inappropriate when employees are told there are items they must wear. Along such lines, your organization’s image can continue to be maintained with a collaboration between employee self-expression and a brief set of gender-neutral dress guidelines.   

References

Gonzalez, J. (2019). Time to take a look at your dress code. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/dress-code/ 

Prozinski, J. G., Mazanec, K. (2021). Dress codes in the modern workplace: An employer’s guide to avoiding pitfalls and liability. Retrieved from https://www.venable.com/insights/publications/2021/08/dress-codes-in-the-modern-workplace 

Septem. (2022). Embracing individuality: Your self-expression. Retrieved from https://www.maisonseptem.com/blogs/embracing-individuality-your-self-expression 

Zuroski, E. (2020). ‘Where do you know from?’: An exercise in placing ourselves together in the classroom. Retrieved from https://maifeminism.com/where-do-you-know-from-an-exercise-in-placing-ourselves-together-in-the-classroom/     

Laura Cormier

Laura Cormier

CEI Youth Advisory Group Member, 2021-22

 

Laura Cormier is a senior student at St. Francis Xavier University (StFX), where she studies a concentration in Forensic Psychology with a Subsidiary in Women’s and Gender Studies. Laura recently received an Irving Research Mentorship Award through the Undergraduate Summer Student Research Award program at StFX in order to work on her Honours Thesis, “A Profile of Patients Admitted to the Nova Scotia Hospital, 1860-1863.”