Men Should Look Nice. Women Should Look Pretty.

The Dress Code policy. There are very few managers or HR professionals who haven’t participated in a dress code conversation.

Sadly, in many organizations, when faced with conundrums such as: “How do I tell Sally she needs to wear a bra?” (answer: “Hey Sally, you need to wear a bra.”) or “What are we going to do so that Bob irons his shirts? (answer: “Hey Bob, iron your shirts.”), the easy lazy answer has always been “Let’s write a dress code policy!”

Many years ago, when I was fresh-faced and eager in my new HR career, the organization I worked for felt the need to move from a common-sense (for the most part) one page Dress Code Policy to a FIVE PAGE policy that spelled out everything from the length of one’s skirt to the banning of pants/skirts that had pockets on the back. The enforcement of this policy would have necessitated, more than likely, the hiring of Sister Mary Agnes to join our staff and roam about measuring skirt lengths with her ruler. As it was, we were already a tad foolish, differentiating the proper attire based on what floor of the building you worked on. If you were a female, and your office was on the 2nd floor, you were forbidden from wearing pants. Why? That was the Executive Floor (all-male C-Suite at the time) and, apparently, it had been determined that the gals needed to remember their place in the hierarchy.

Now this was a financial institution with drive-through banking stations in the Midwest and in the winter it was not uncommon to hit (and sustain) temperatures well below zero. And as you may recall from the last time you went to a drive-through banking facility the tellers were f-a-r a-w-a-y from you and you probably could have cared less about what they were wearing.  Nevertheless, back in the day, the company I worked for decided that these employees were dressing inappropriately when they wore cardigan sweaters over a nice shirt or blouse. Never mind the fact that they wore the cardigan sweaters because working in those drive-thru facilities was like coming down the wind tunnel at Lambeau Field in the middle of January.

Sorry Joanie; time to ditch the sweater.  Common sense is no match for our dress code policy.


The other day while Googling some random HR stuff, I came across the slide deck for a New Employee Orientation circa  2007.

There were a number of slides devoted to what to wear/what not to wear.  (Spaghetti strap tops and athletic shoes were out; pressed khakis and blazers were in).  I guess it was particularly helpful for this organization to point out that while skirts and dresses were always appropriate for women – “Female executives and their assistants may choose to wear suits.”  I wonder what happened when Grace, the lowly mid-level Purchasing Manager decided to wear a suit?  Scandalous!

That, of course, was on the Do/Don’t slide for women. And naturally there was a Do/Don’t slide for men. The headers of these two slides:

Men Should Look Nice” and “Women Should Look Pretty.”

I am not kidding.


I think about a new employee sitting in a conference room in 2007 (that’s only 5 years ago!) with other newbies. She was excited to start her new job, perhaps even making a bit more money than in her last gig.  She had been through numerous interviews, got a good vibe from her soon-to-be-boss and felt she made the right decision for her career when she accepted the job offer.

And then she learned what this company considers important for the success of its female employees when she’s told She Should Look Pretty.

I wonder how long I would have lasted?

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the Author

Robin Schooling

With 25 years of HR Management experience, Robin Schooling, SPHR, has worked in a variety of industries. In 2013, after serving as VPHR with a Louisiana based organization, she left corporate HR to open up Silver Zebras, LLC, an HR Consulting firm. She blogs at HRSchoolhouse and you can follow her on twitter at @RobinSchooling where, on football weekends, you can read all her #whodat tweets.



Good article; I will have a sign made with slide headings!

Just like Jean’s Friday, I think the elusive definition of “flip-flop” will follow me around my career until I retire.

Andrea Ballard

Oh, I can’t stop laughing. This is so funny. Working in law firms and accounting firms for most of my HR career, I have had countless discussions about “Jeans Friday.” Yes, it’s still under discussion. If I could add up all the billable hours spent with partners sitting around the table talking about jeans, I’d be a rich lady.

Robin Schooling

I also find that “Jeans Friday” often means, for many, “last-day-of-the-work-week-Jeans-Day.” Case in point – office closed on Good Friday so the last-day-of-the-work-week was Thursday. I think I had 5 people stop me in the hall on Wednesday to ask if they could wear jeans the next day….

Judy Lindenberger

That is why we have all lasted so long in HR. If common sense ruled, we would not have jobs!

In addition to making me laugh, and reminding me that people just don’t think sometimes, I remembered a time when, freshly out of college, I had to tell a woman, who was older than me, that she needed to tone it down when she met with people outside of the office. She wore a wig of a different color each day and they were all teased up and huge. She wore dark red lipstick, lots of bright blue eye shadow and as much foundation and blush as she could put on. I can still picture her today. When I told her, as gently and directly as I was able, that she needed to dress more appropriately when meeting with people outside of the office, she stared at me angrily and said that Jesus told her to dress like that. As a twenty something year old, I had no response!


Wow, so archaic for a dress code that was only written five years ago. I wonder what that company’s code is now?!


OMG – Dress codes. Makes me want to pull my arm off just so I have something to throw. Here’s my horror story. At my last “real” job we had a safety manager who had this fetish for shoes, but not in the typical way. His fetish was to go crazy anytime someone wore shoes that were “against OSHA regulations” or “could make you trip and break your nose and then have surgery blah, blah, blah”. So to train our staff he created a 22 page powerpoint depicting acceptable and unacceptable shoes. He must have spent hours scouring through magazines because he had examples of every shoe made and it either had a big check mark beside it or a big circle around it with an X through it. He about lost his mind when we told him that in no way could he train our employees with a 22 page powerpoint on shoes. Insanity.

Buzz Rooney

Wow! I wouldn’t have lasted long in that company either. I’ve spent my whole HR career in production, manufacturing and automotive retail. I think someone would pass out if I wore a suit — starting with me!

The dress code issue frosts my cookies, too. More rules is not the answer. Addressing the problem and holding people accountable to the prescribed solution is the answer. Always.


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