3 May 2021

Should your workplace have any say in what you wear?

| Zoya Patel
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Duck tie

Men have far fewer options regarding what’s considered workplace-appropriate clothing … but can still get it wrong. Photo: Sara Kurfeß/Unsplash.

As the days get cooler and shorter, some might be welcoming the return to winter fashions – the chance to bundle up in coats and jumpers, warm boots and scarves to protect you against the Canberra chill.

Indeed, it’s probably good timing for the HR team at the Department of Home Affairs, who were in the news last week after details of their proposed ban on staff wearing sleeveless tops when working went public.

At least with the colder weather, employees are likely to dress warmly and the archaic principles that drove the call for a dress code can be muffled for a few more months until the seasons turn and the desire to reveal more flesh reappears.

Am I alone in thinking that the idea of a workplace dress code that goes beyond ‘please dress professionally’ is bizarre in this day and age?

At the point at which someone has passed the hurdles of applying for a job, interviewing, and being deemed suitable, isn’t it safe to assume they’ll understand the need to wear suitable work clothes? And assuming an individual does show up in thoroughly inappropriate clothes to work, isn’t that something that can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis?

When it comes down to it, the real question is, what do we deem ‘appropriate’ in the first place?

The Home Affairs dress code debacle got so much attention because it seems especially puritan to take offence at an employee’s bare shoulders (and based on mainstream fashion, it seems likely this particular request was aimed at women, who are usually the primary target for clothes policing).

I once worked in an organisation that sent around a reminder from HR when warmer weather began, reminding us all to dress modestly and ensure skirts were below our knees and our shoulders were covered (clearly aimed at female employees). Another workplace made a point of telling me that on casual Fridays, I needed to make sure my jeans didn’t have any rips in them, especially up my thighs, and also not to wear short shorts. I had to wonder if my male colleagues had the same points impressed on them.

The flip side to this is that men have far fewer options regarding what’s considered workplace-appropriate clothing. My male friends who have a flair for fashion are often frustrated by the expectation that they wear navy, black or grey trousers and a buttoned shirt every day. The gendered norms do flow both ways, with frustration felt on both sides.

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I understand the need to dress up to a particular standard in some workplaces. But even so, at its very core, how we dress shouldn’t actually have any bearing on how we work or how we’re perceived to perform.

I’ve always loved working with colleagues who have their own sense of style and brighten the office with their ensembles each day. Equally, I respect the colleagues who wear the same standard outfit daily – black pants, plain coloured top, and a jumper/cardigan – because really, not everyone has the time or energy to embrace fashion, and it really has nothing to do with getting their work done.

Most workplaces operate under a code of conduct, usually one that stipulates a shared value of respect. If someone was dressing in a way that was deemed inappropriate, out of respect to them, and respecting the impact it might have on their colleagues, a private and empathetic conversation should be enough to uncross any wires and ensure everyone is happy.

Mandating that everyone has to adhere to a code of dress that’s dreamed up by a handful of people and then applied across the organisation is just unnecessary and unlikely ever to meet the needs of individual circumstances across the organisation.

Am I right in thinking workplace dress codes are fussy and outdated? Or is it naive to think common sense can prevail?

Original Article published by Zoya Patel on The RiotACT.

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