Dress Coding For Success

Discussion
Apr 06, 2005
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Commentary by Laurie Cozart CPC, Executive Coach, Beyond Point B

(www.beyondpointb.com)


With employee dress codes becoming less stringent in order to accommodate personal preferences, do companies risk tarnishing their image, alienating customers and potentially
seeing a decrease in sales?


In the past, it was common to see “No pierced body parts, except ears, may be exposed” in a company-initiated dress code statement.


Today, many younger potential hires and employees have opted for facial piercings and tattoos. It has become the norm in some circles.


As a district manager back in the day, I vividly remember potential employees refusing job offers because it meant removing facial piercings or covering tattoos. Then came low
slung jeans and belly piercings. So, to keep up with hiring needs, some retailers and other companies modified their dress code and reduced restrictions even further.


Companies started to notice the effect this was having on their image. Complaints started coming in; older shoppers were turned off. Could it be that sales started to drop as
a result?


Many companies have started to re-evaluate their dress code policies. Take Costco’s recent court case, for example. In 2001, it opted for a more professional image. As reported
in Workforce Week Management by Alison Stein Wellner, “(For Costco) the business interest was in presenting a neat, clean professional appearance.” Then a court battle
began with a long-term employee (4 years), Kimberly Cloutier, refusing to adhere to the new policy, citing religious beliefs. Ms. Cloutier claimed to be a member of The Church
of Body Modification, established in 1999.


After 4 years of litigation, the court ruled in Costco’s favor. “The court decided that if it forced Costco to create an exception for Cloutier’s eyebrow ring and other piercings,
it would create an undue hardship on the company.”


The court’s decision found: “For better or for worse, employees reflect on employers. This is particularly true of employees who regularly interact with customers. … Even if
Cloutier did not regularly receive any complaints about her appearance, her facial jewelry influenced Costco’s public image and, in Costco’s calculation, detracted from its professionalism.
… Costco has made a determination that facial piercings, aside from earrings, detract from the ‘neat, clean, and professional image’ that it aims to cultivate. Such a business
determination is within its discretion.”


Moderator’s Comment: Do you agree with the court ruling in the Costco case that determining what constitutes a professional image is for the employer
to decide? In light of today’s fashion and religious observances, are companies that ban various types of piercings, tattoos and clothing in danger of losing the recruiting game?


Laurie Cozart – Moderator

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18 Comments on "Dress Coding For Success"


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Robert Immel
Guest
Robert Immel
15 years 11 months ago

What about a man with a shaved head? Years ago, that might have been in the same category as body piercings. Today it’s perfectly acceptable. I think the expression “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” comes into play. Customers shouldn’t be offended by a nose ring. I don’t like seeing overweight women in skimpy outfits, but that’s my problem, not the employee/employer.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
15 years 11 months ago

A ring in one’s nose, a tattoo on one’s a**,
Is the goal of being “in” with the Hip class,
But for boosting sales it doesn’t fill the glass.

Costco took a stand and the courts agreed
That while body piercing may set one free
It isn’t tuned to company imagery.

Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
You know, it’s quite amazing how all of these experiments turn out. It’s also quite interesting coming from a generation of the opinion that ‘it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks’ and that it only matters ‘how you feel.’ The result of the experiment was inevitable and it’s nearly over — if not soon, sooner than the extreme casual minded believe it will be over. The fact is that retailers should, and have every right to, protect their image and protect how that message is presented to the consumer. That protection includes asking you to dress and groom according to their standards in the intent of protecting their image. Sure, I am more ‘comfortable’ dressing casually for work. However, I never feel as if I am dressing for work. Thus, it further blurs the lines between work and play. Employers lost their images and lost much more by lightening up on expectations. It’s silly to believe that it has not impacted every other area of their businesses as well. Everything has become casual – everything. Employers,… Read more »
Rip Rowan
Guest
Rip Rowan
15 years 11 months ago

“Church of of Body Modification’ — Give me a break! If we go with that one, what do we do for the “Church of Required Nudity”?

Salvatore J LaMartina
Guest
Salvatore J LaMartina
15 years 11 months ago
At the risk of offending those who wish to turn a discussion like this into a individual rights issue, one item stands clearly above the rest: Retailers are in the business (as is any other business) of making money. A key element of any business strategy is public perception and opinion. The image a company portrays impacts its success or failure. Companies rightly or wrongly spend tremendous amounts of money positioning themselves for consumers (Philip-Morris, Kraft, General Electric, Anheuser-Busch, etc.), all in an attempt to carefully shape an image that the company believes is necessary for it to do business. Companies even shape their charitable donations and community service programs in such a fashion as to improve their image, and therefore make them a “better” choice for their potential customers. Why, then, would a company be constrained from establishing criteria for employees and their dress? Body piercings and tattoos are right for some businesses, based on their clientele. Some establishments (certain night clubs, certain motorcycle dealerships, skate shops, some broadcast and media companies) quite probably… Read more »
Dave Allen
Guest
Dave Allen
15 years 11 months ago

Being one who refused to cut his hair too short to apply for work out of college (although I did cut it), I still think the court was correct in its decision. While I personally didn’t care to work for someone who used my hair as a reason to not hire me, I also respected their right to do so. It works out for both parties. If you are hurting business by your appearance, who does that benefit?

We all have choices that need to be made, and after I started working, my choice was that while the company saw my hair length as a non-issue as long as it was well kept, I saw it as a pain and cut it shorter. I think piercings will eventually move in that direction also.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 11 months ago
Personally, I squirm every time I contemplate this issue. I do think retailers should and must control, to some extent, the way in which they present themselves to the public via their employees. On the other hand, this is such a slippery slope, and at what point we decide something crosses the line is as individual as the number of people making the determination. Piercings and tattoos don’t bother me in the least (and demographically I should be expected to be offended – based on age, sex, etc.), but I know I am likely the exception. Honestly, there is an obviously poor, middle-aged checkout woman at my supermarket who has many, very long facial hairs which I personally find much more repellent (at the risk of sounding incredibly small-minded). How could one possibly legislate or talk to her about it? And I hate to think someone might not hire her as a result. The answer may lie in some sort of compromise. People with tattoos or piercings may be employed to work more behind the… Read more »
Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
15 years 11 months ago

At the risk of offending members of the “Church of Body Modification,” the court was right. It should be up to each employer to set appearance standards, within reason. The larger issue for retailers is to make sure their standards are in line with their philosophy of retailing, and the types of customers and employees they want to attract. Having a tattoo and/or body jewelry is no longer unusual, and at many beaches in the summer, my guess is more sunbathers have one or more of these than don’t. It’s still out for my “old geezer” crowd, though, thankfully.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
AWDrive has raised an important point. If a retailer is targeting certain customers and devises an employee dress code appropriate for those customers, potential employees should choose whether or not they want to work for that employer and sell to those customers. Frequently they may prefer not to. But if they do apply for the job, and get it, they should be expected to respect the employer and customers by doing they job they have contracted to do in the way that the terms and conditions were set out. I do agree with Rick that exceptions may be made, particularly on grounds of culture or religion although I can also see the difficulty in drawing a line between an Asian woman’s nose ring and a worshipper from the Church of Body Piercing. Perhaps one or both such people, on looking at the other one, might decide that that is not actually the most suitable workplace for them after all. By the way, if this sounds like an argument that could also apply to people expected… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

Companies that ban piercings and tatoos are not in danger of hurting recruitment efforts. It’s just the opposite. They are protecting themselves from a tarnished image. People who resort to mutilating their bodies do so from a lack of self-esteem or peer pressure. I have yet to see anyone tattoo and pierce themselves up the corporate ladder. Perhaps the prison hierarchy, but not corporate.

I used to work for a supermarket that tossed all job applications in the trash. We hired part-timers by going through the local high school yearbook to see who looked clean-cut and was not involved in a lot of extra activities. The manager not only did not want kids with piercings and tattoos, he also did not allow teenagers with acne to be seen by the customers.

Robert Straub
Guest
Robert Straub
15 years 11 months ago

Personally, I’m more offended by some companies’ uniforms than I am by a tattoo or piercing. I believe this, more than any dress code, costs employers good employees.
As an example, I can attest that as a young man I worked at TGI Fridays just long enough to get trained as a bartender – there really is no better training ground. The minute I had enough experience, I lost the suspenders, striped shirt, and idiotic hats for a job where I could wear what I wanted – within reason.

As an adult, I try to avoid businesses that make their employees look like fools. It makes me uncomfortable, and I wonder what they think of their customers if they have so little respect for their employees.

If an individual wants to look like a fool on their own, that’s their business, but they have to find a job where that’s appropriate and acceptable.

Jonathan Levy
Guest
Jonathan Levy
15 years 11 months ago

Requiring an employee to wear a uniform is in no way different than requiring an employee to cover or remove piercings when on the job.

Both requirements are based on identifying with the corporate brand and promoting the type of image the employer is looking to project, and I applaud the court’s decision.

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

It’s easy for us all to agree that piercings are unacceptable for a lot of retail environments, especially food stores, but there are some difficult judgments that I’m sure managers must face. For example, what would you do if a woman of Indian or Pakistani heritage were hired who wears a traditional nose ring? This isn’t even necessarily a religious issue, it’s a cultural discrepancy. Do you make an exception for her? How do you rationalize that to other employees who want to do the same, but aren’t raised in that culture?

Taste and acceptability are relative. It’s important to keep an open mind, as well. Sometimes you have to allow things to “slide” a little, because cultures change. If that weren’t true, gas station attendants would still be wearing bow ties and little caps.

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 11 months ago

Oh there’s a slope here all right, but it’s probably not too slippery. The next case may involve a burka, and then the “religious garb” argument isn’t so far-fetched. I think we’re going to wind up with a “community standards” type requirement here. Appearance isn’t a protected form of expression, but religious garb may be at least quasi-protected. What, then, constitutes legitimate religious garb? Body piercings, no, burka yes? We’ll see…

Franklin Benson
Guest
Franklin Benson
15 years 11 months ago

I think most retailers would be perfectly happy to change their tune if the economics were different. If the heavily pierced/tattooed crowd had the majority of the purchasing power, they’d be the ones that would be catered to.

Instead, the purchasing power belongs to the mundane people who don’t like to feel uncomfortable in an unusual person’s presence. Thus, that demographic is catered to.

I would have expected the baby boomer generation to cut us a little slack on this one – after all, weren’t they excoriated for having long hair and hippy clothing back in the day?

Charles Magowan
Guest
Charles Magowan
15 years 11 months ago

The issue in the case was whether or not Costco infringed Title VII’s protection of religious freedoms. Companies can have appearance policies; however, they cannot enforce them where they conflict with a religious requirement (such as wearing a yarmulke or veil) without seeking a reasonable accommodation with the affected worker. Failing the negotiation of a reasonable accommodation, the employer may claim undue hardship, even a hypothetical hardship, as in this case.

Costco refused the accommodations first proposed by Cloutier. This brought EEOC heat on them, so they offered these same accommodations to her but then she refused to accept her own proposal. Upshot? Four years of costly litigation!!!

Considering that most workers ordered to remove their visible piercings don’t belong to the Church of Body Manipulation (and if they did, Costco would still need to discuss an accommodation such as they eventually offered Cloutier), Costco gained little to nothing for its legal costs.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

I wear jeans when I work at my house, which is most of the time. When I travel on company business, it’s always time for the jacket and often the tie. No biggie. For most people, it shouldn’t be a biggie. If it is, there’s likely an underlying attitude problem and, if I had to consider that person as a potential hire, I’d say “no thank you.” Good for Costco.

Hillel A
Guest
Hillel A
15 years 10 months ago

Coding the organization, taking into account what is acceptable to customers, is the best thing. I personally feel a dress code needs to be in action to some extent when it comes to inter-person relationships. Back offices sometimes do implement the so called “Dress Code,” but it makes an impact on the personal relationships for all levels within the organization.

Whereas the interaction with the customer has a company profit impact, which should never be put adrift by giving liberty to have oneself exposed.
Keeping in mind customers are our profit makers, we should always have courtesy for them !!

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