Is a Dress Code An Anachronism or Useful Tool in Projecting an Agency’s Image?

Are dress codes an anachronism in federal agencies? Should employees be able to wear plastic flip-flops and tank tops when they come to work? Should agencies care about their public image? Here are several observations from a former federal human resources professional on the subject.

An issue which comes up repeatedly in supervisory classes that I teach is agency dress codes, or the lack thereof, and the often thorny issue of what is appropriate dress for the office. In researching this subject, I found that Ralph Smith had written a couple of informative articles on this subject in 2004 and 2005.

Among the relevant questions that Ralph raised were the following: “Should there be a dress code for employees of federal agencies? [S]hould the way employees dress be regulated or remain largely a matter of personal preference? Does public image make a difference to an agency? Should an agency work to create a favorable image by requiring employees to dress in a particular way?” (Also see "Do Federal Employees Dress Like Slobs?")

All of these questions were at least touched on in a case Ralph cited in which a dress code dispute between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in Baltimore and the union representing many of its employees was decided by the Federal Service Impasses Panel (“Panel”). The Panel adopted the agency’s position, agreeing that CMS had an image problem and observing that "We are also persuaded that the Employer’s proposed dress code is a legitimate response to perceptions concerning the image currently projected by some of the Agency’s employees."

I was very familiar with that case since I happened to be part of a group of consultants that was providing training to CMS supervisors on the new collective bargaining agreement. The dress code issue controversy developed when a top agency official observed a number of employees coming to work and was quoted to the effect that “Employees look more like they are dressed for the beach than for the office.”

Attempting to set guidelines for how employees should dress at the office can create friction, in that many people consider their clothes a reflection of their individuality and are sensitive to perceived criticism about the way they dress. I learned this lesson the hard way in a position where my only subordinate supervisor was also a man, and all of our other employees were women. The two of us felt that a few members of our staff were dressing a freckle too revealingly on occasion, so we came up with what we thought was a reasonable dress code.

We didn’t meet with our employees in advance to solicit their input — a bad decision — and we didn’t put it out in draft form for comment. We received immediate “blowback” from employees, who were in general agreement that everything we knew about fashion would fit comfortably into the tiniest thimble. Discretion being the better part of valor, we beat a hasty retreat, negotiated the dress code with our employees, and came out with a new document with which all sides could live.

As in so many other areas of Human Resources, I believe the key to success in this one is common sense – on the part of both management and employees. I would cite the Homeland Security Department’s former dress code for undercover federal air marshals as an example of a lack of common sense on management’s part. According to a Washington Times article, the strict “coat and tie” dress code of the agency was protested by many of the marshals, who felt that it compromised their in-flight anonymity. Marshals nicknamed their neckties the “hangman’s noose” because they said it would allow an attacker from behind to incapacitate them.

Within three months of an ABC News investigation – perhaps not coincidentally – the director of the Federal Air Marshal Service eliminated the dress code.

In most Federal agencies, how an employee dresses is not a matter of life and death, but I would personally be concerned if an agency had no interest in its public image. As for the impact of dress codes on productivity, I think employees tend to work better when they are comfortable, but comfort level varies widely from individual to individual. “Casual Fridays,” also known as “Aloha Fridays,” began in response to employee desires to dress more comfortably. In many agencies, the standard is now “business casual,” which the job search engine defines as “dressing professionally, looking relaxed yet neat and pulled together.”

A reasonable “dress code,” whether written or unwritten, should take into account regional cultural and climate differences. Here’s what I mean by a cultural difference: When my dad went to work in New York City, he would not have considered himself properly attired without a stylish fedora — perched at the appropriate angle — on his head, but when we moved to Colorado Springs most men went bareheaded and those who didn’t tended to favor cowboy hats.

As for climate differences, Denver, like San Francisco and Seattle, is usually comfortable in the summer, while Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Atlanta are hot and humid and Phoenix and Las Vegas are hot and dry. It would seem to make sense for agency management to take climate variations into consideration when determining reasonable attire.

My personal opinion is that both supervisors and employees benefit when an agency has a dress code, because it provides a general framework that should help ensure reasonable consistency from office to office. I view a “good” dress code as one that strikes an appropriate balance between employee comfort and agency objectives to project a professional image. However, I have seen a marked decrease in the number of Federal agencies that have published dress codes, perhaps at least in part due to the fact that they often generate controversy.

I believe employee dress should be largely a matter of personal preference, but within broad parameters that reflect the agency’s mission and culture and the image it is attempting to convey. I think an agency often strives to project a “professional” image and that how its employees dress can be a part of that objective.

Supervisors frequently ask me if they can exercise any control over an employee’s attire if their agency has no published dress code. My answer is always “yes,” because I believe a supervisor has the right to determine what kind of attire is appropriate to project the appropriate agency image in a given situation. For example, a number of Federal agencies have employees who deal with the public on a recurring basis. In my opinion, such agencies can reasonably expect their employees to dress in a professional manner.

Going a step further, if an employee is to attend a meeting at which it is expected that the men will be wearing a coat and tie and the women will be wearing business suits, I think it is perfectly reasonable for a supervisor to ask an employee to dress in a similar manner.

I always caution supervisors that if they supervise bargaining unit employees, they need to check their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to see if it contains any guidance on appropriate agency dress. If they have any questions regarding interpretation of CBA language, I advise them to contact their Labor Relations Office. I also warn them that an employee can grieve a decision as to appropriate dress; if the supervisor’s decision is challenged, she/he may have to prove that there was a valid, non-discriminatory business reason for the decision.
The “bottom line” for me is that an agency dress code can serve a useful purpose but must be reasonable in both design and implementation or it is likely to cause more problems than it solves.

For example, if management’s policy lacks flexibility, imposing the same dress standards on a warehouse worker who never comes into contact with the public as it does on its employees who have regular public contact, chances are that there is going to be friction and that employees will view the policy as out of touch with reality and even oppressive. By the same token, an employee who insists on wearing ripped jeans (I never have understood that particular fashion trend) and ratty tennis shoes regardless of the occasion is probably asking for a confrontation with management.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.