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6 questions for companies changing a dress code

Walmart's (WMT) recent decision to enforce a new dress code for employees by the end of September has put a spotlight on the issue and raised some thorny questions. For instance, what's the difference between a dress code and a uniform? Plus, the move has many Walmart employees upset because buying new clothes is an expense many either don't want or can't afford.

However, dress codes aren't unusual at all. In fact, the company you're working for probably has one.

Still, as Walmart is showing, when making a decision to change a dress code, it can be fraught with consequences. That's why companies in that situation should first think about these six things.

1. Is this important? Walmart says customers want a more professional look, hence the change. But are your customers really asking for a change, or is this a dream of someone in management? If you ask your customers, make sure you're asking the right question. "Would you like to see our employees in more professional attire?" will lead to different answers than if you ask: "Do you think our employees, at their own expense, should be required to buy new shirts?"

If you're an investment banker, your customers are going to expect well-dressed employees. If you're Walmart? The customer probably just want to find an employee.

2. Will this be difficult for my employees? When someone is hired, it's an expectation that their wardrobe meets the dress code (which should be laid out clearly in the new hire paperwork). However, when you change the dress code, it can be expensive. Especially if it's a step up, as Walmart's is. If you're going more casual, your employees probably already have the clothes on hand. But if you're moving from jeans to business casual, a lot of shopping will be necessary.

3. Consider the cost, even at the beginning. Many years ago, I worked for a small credit union. The bank tellers were required to wear business attire -- jackets, skirts, button-down shirts, nylons, et cetera. While this may be standard in banking, tellers made less than $10 an hour (in 1999) and often wore the same suit every day. Does the paycheck you give your employees match the dress standard you require of them?

4. Is this worth the bad feelings (and bad press)? From a personal and political standpoint, I think companies should be able to require any dress code they want. Absolutely. However, I also think they shouldn't. Companies should take their employees' situations into consideration, and they should also consider how this looks to the general public.

It's true that the dress code in your small business is unlikely to draw the kind of attention Walmart has, but do you want your employees resenting you? Is good will worth a button-down shirt?

5. Is there an easier way to accomplish this? Absolutely. Walmart could have achieved similar results simply by handing out the new shirts, which can be white or blue with a collar, or by opting for something even simpler, say, a dark t-shirt, which most employees would likely have in their closets.

6. Are your rules reflecting reality? When I worked in pharma, the company had strict standards for people in laboratories and factories, as there should be. For instance, no open-toe shoes were allowed for safety reasons.

One day a dress code change from corporate came out via email, stating that open-toe shoes were forbidden throughout the company. Every female in my department was wearing sandals when that email came out. And yes, we were in HR. Corporate had neglected to realize that the closed-toe rule was about safety, but people who didn't work with chemicals or on assembly lines didn't have those safety issues.

I think my sandal-clad VP made a phone call, because the next week a revised dress code came out allowing open-toe shoes in office settings.

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