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Dress codes are, mostly, unwritten rules of conduct. It is the behavior that the workplace expects and desires, but there's no written, contractual agreement enforcing it.

My question is, what happens if an employee breaks the dress code? Since there's no contractual agreement, the employee cannot be fired for it, can they? What options does the employer have in managing this situation?

Imagine a scenario where you are meeting with a client and the dress code says to wear a suit, but an employee of yours shows up in shorts and a t-shirt. What can the employer do in this situation?

closed as off-topic by Jim G., gnat, The Wandering Dev Manager, BSMP, Rory Alsop Dec 24 '18 at 11:25

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    What makes you think that dress codes are mostly unwritten? Every place I've worked has had the dress code explicitly stated in the employee handbook. – Dryden Long Dec 21 '18 at 23:01
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My question is, what happens if an employee breaks the dress code? Since there's no contractual agreement, the employee cannot be fired for it, can they? What options does the employer have in managing this situation?

In an at-will state, the employee can be fired for this reason, or for no reason at all (in general).

Imagine a scenario where you are meeting with a client and the dress code says to wear a suit, but an employee of yours shows up in shorts and a t-shirt. What can the employer do in this situation?

In most of the US at least, and absent a union, the employer can easily fire the employee for being unable to meet the needs of the job. (In some contexts this would be called "being too stupid to continue employment").

  • Is being fired for a single minor offense the standard management practice in USA? – Mavrik Dec 22 '18 at 13:31
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    @Mavrik It is when the employer doesn't like you for some reason. If you are of value to the company, you can get away with a lot. – gnasher729 Dec 22 '18 at 15:27
  • @gnasher729 I would replace "can" with "might" Just because you have value, doesnt mean its enough – Keltari Dec 23 '18 at 15:58
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It seems people are taking this too seriously. You do not have to fire the individual. If you are the manager, you need to take this individual aside and discuss that at this office we have a dress code and it is x,y,z.

Additionally relay important additional notes. If we are meeting a client or we have clients in the office we require that a suit and tie be worn.

Then, if the employee continues to buck the system you can escalate. Have the discussion again, re-iterate that while it is not written, it is assumed you will dress in x,y,z manner.

If you are dealing with a minority or someone is dressing a particular way due to a religious belief it may be time to lay down formal policy and then issue appropriate consequences for violations. You will want to consult 'industry norms' when creating this policy.

Finally if the individual just continues to challenge the code, then you can have the conversation that maybe the culture of this organization does not fit them and they should seek employment elsewhere.

If, on the other hand, you are just an employee and jealous that your co-worker comes in casual, while you are formal, deal with it, it's not your problem, it is your managers problem.

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    @JoeStrazzere: Doubtful, but I could certainly imagine someone wearing a headscarf in violation of a "no hats" rule. I'm not sure it's a Good Idea for management to try to enforce it in that case, however. – Kevin Dec 22 '18 at 2:56
  • @Kevin in an office setting probably not. OTOH in a manufacturing company some looser or more flowing styles could fall under the same safety ban on the shop floor. – Dan Neely Dec 22 '18 at 15:56
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You are expected to always behave in a way that doesn't hurt your company's business. In my job nobody cares too much what I'm wearing ("Dress code: Dressed"), most customers are fine with it, but if my boss said "Tomorrow, we'll have a meeting with this customer where you have to be present, and this customer is very particular about dress code, and if you don't come wearing a suit it could cost us a deal", then I will turn up in a suit on the next day.

And if I didn't (although this is very very unlikely to happen, but it's the example you gave), I would expect to be told off, and to be fired if it happens again, even though I work in the UK.

This is all not based on the dress code, but on showing your company in a bad light, which is never a good idea.

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Most places have a written guideline on dress code.

But in the absence of one, tell them their appearance is unacceptable and send them home to get changed and warn them they'll be disciplined if it happens again.

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what happens if an employee breaks the dress code? 

Nothing. Well, usually nothing that is immediately obvious-- but that's NOT what you have to worry about.

Whether the rules are "written" or not, you may be silently, immediately, and permanently judged based on your appearance or whatever else you've done to break the norms of the social group you are working in.

This will condition how people think about you in the future. It will impact your career in ways that are impossible to predict. And yes, this can happen even if you follow the employee handbook to the letter.

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In places with at-will employment, the employee can be fired for it. In places where firing isn't an option, the employee can be treated like any other employee who flouts the rules to the company's detriment. There's going to be some sort of procedure governing bad employees, and showing up in shorts and a T-shirt where a suit is required can be treated much like not coming to work on time or whatever else. Presumably, such an employee can be written up, and after a certain number of violations fired.

Never think you're immune to possible reactions from your employer.

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In places where there are not formal dress codes, it becomes more about whether you offend the client/customer or your colleague with your attire outside of garments wore as part of protected groups such as for religious beliefs and gender identity. Prepare for repercussions if a client/customer complains about your attire though. For the first offense you're likely to get a warning, but repeated offenses, you'll face disciplinary action.

I'm a software engineer where dressing up is definitely up to interpretation. When our company holds our annual conference for our big customers, we get email reminders about how we should dress professionally.

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It is part of your job to represent your employer and convey a certain image to customers.

For a uniformed service job it's a no-brainer. You are expected to wear the company-provided clothing, which typically serves additional purposes: hygiene, protection, branding (logos) or simply identification (if you walk into a hospital or a McDonalds, you want to be able to tell who are part of the staff).

For an office job you have a lot more individual freedom, but it still really comes down to "does my way of dressing help the business?". For an extreme example, showing up in an SS uniform would be inappropriate anywhere. However, it is quite rare to be fired on the spot for minor deviations - employees are more valuable than that (it costs more to replace them than correct them). It will usually escalate through several meetings, with increasing degrees of warning, before leading to termination - though at that point, if the employee has been explicitly told what is acceptable and still won't comply, it is no longer about "dress code violations" but a more severe problem of insubordination. Simply put, your freedom of expression is secondary to the interests of the company.

There are several reasons employers might not want to put their informal dress code down in writing. Foremost, managers want to be able to decide at their own discretion what will fly and what won't. Working out a specific code also takes a lot of careful work, as a sloppy effort can lead to complaints about sexism or cultural insensitivity. Another issue is that many people have a "loophole" mentality and a written code won't necessarily help if there are employees already set on not following the code. For example it may dictate wearing a suit, and then people will mock the rules by show up in garish colors or with ridiculous ties.

An interesting example of subversion occured in Sweden a couple years ago. During a hot summer, bus drivers were complaining about the heat and having to wear all-black clothes and long pants, with no option for shorts. Male drivers protested by wearing skirts, as these were sanctioned by the dress code, even if they were only intended to be worn by women.

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Honestly it is going to depend on a few things.

  • how the dress code is violated

  • what the employee was wearing

  • is this a first time offense

  • do they have other discipline or performance issues

  • are there other events happening that might make it more serious

  • how important is the dress code to the company for example is it a critical part of their image

Those are just a few factors to consider

Things that could happen

  • asked to correct it in the future
  • written up for the violation
  • sent home to correct the violation
  • fired for the violation
  • nothing
  • This answer would be better if it laid out some of the things that might actually happen. As it stands, it does not answer the question. – Erik Dec 22 '18 at 8:32
  • Also the big question: How important is the dress code to the company? Do they actually care if employees that are not seen by the public don't follow the dress code? – gnasher729 Dec 22 '18 at 15:33
  • 2@Erik added some possible consequences – Joe W Dec 22 '18 at 16:22
  • @gnasher729 added that to considerations – Joe W Dec 22 '18 at 16:23

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