Career Woman

Career dress code: should your ‘executive style’ really be an employer’s choice?


What is fair for a company to ask when it comes to dressing code, and when they go too far: when style becomes discrimination or sexualisation.

There are several guidelines to be followed at any workspace. When starting a new job, you know that there is some type of culture there, one that you are expected to accept and join.

It is also true that each profession has standards and even stereotypes that you can hardly avoid. Meaning that any of us might find it very weird to meet a lawyer who never wears a suit or a doctor doing surgery in a footballer uniform.

The issue comes to the table when it is not your decision anymore what your style should be, but your employer’s. Even though it is not legal, in most of countries, to dictate what people dress to work, we know that the situation can be very different in practical terms.

What is an executive style anyway?

First, let’s start trying to understand what an executive style is. The term itself already create some type of expectation. How an executive should dress might differ from industry to industry.

Generally speaking, many of us will say that an executive dresses formally. The suit will be mentioned along with ties, formal shoes, and long sleeve button shirts. Women will have a bit more flexibility, being able to choose between skirts and trousers. Jewelry should be kept to the minimum along with make-up and other accessories.

This general rule is followed and expected by the majority. Except if you are in the IT or any creative industry, a manager without a suit can make eyes roll. And it will also be true no matter how warm it is outside.

Why employers try to force an executive style on their employees?

Even though it is not something that we would like to hear from an employer, it is not uncommon to get called to a superior’s office to be lectured about our personal style. And there are a few reasons for it.

In many cases, yes, it can be just an old-fashioned way to see the world. Some companies are stuck in their ways, just like some people are. And they try to impose what they think is correct in others people’s lives – just like some people do. They miss the opportunity to embrace diversity for fear of the unknown.

But it is also possible that they are just trying to make their clients happy. As mentioned above, there are some expectations coming from customers, so they want to ensure that you will make a great first impression through a dress code. So, before believing that your boss is just being annoying, consider if he or she isn’t being pressured by social demand.

Why it still should be your personal choice

Still, despite the facts above, a company can’t dictate how you dress or behave, unless for safety concerns – for instance, you will be asked to wear a helmet all the time in certain factory and it is not a point for discussion.

Another possibility is that there is a mandatory dress code to which you agreed beforehand, or that makes sense for you to follow. You won’t go in shorts to a black-tie event, right?

If nothing of that applies to your situation, the way that you dress should not be a factor in if you can handle your job or not.

Plus, you must consider your own health. Stay eight hours or more standing on high heels isn’t good for anyone. And it is an imminent danger to those with back or high blood pressure issues. That is to say that you shouldn’t be forced to put your health at risk just to follow a dress code.

What to do if you feel pressured to change your style

If you feel that you are being pressured to change your style, it is important that you try to understand the situation in the first place. Make sure that you aren’t overreacting, and that doing what you are been asked isn’t for a decent reason (such as safety or norms coming from clients).

Ask whoever is responsible for the writing services for the employees’ manual (if there is one), and have a look at legislation in your country and check if there are any guidelines related to a dress and behavioral code. Then you can start a discussion with your boss or your Human Resources Department, so you can understand the situation better and decide which action take.

If you feel that you are being discriminated, you can also launch a claim with the support of a lawyer or an organization that deals with it. You might be paid a monetary compensation.

What if you feel you are being sexualized by your employer?

Sometimes, it is not just a question of wearing skirt or trousers. Many women have reported being asked to wear more revealing clothes, go blonde, or wear high heels,in order to attract more clients, for instance. And it can also happen to men, especially those working in gyms or clothing shops.

A recent case was on the cover page of many newspapers and magazines, online and offline, about a 27-year-old receptionist working for PwC in London who was sent home without pay after refusing to wear high heels.

Around 150k people signed a petition in her support, and the case got the attention of the UK authorities, which have been urged to make the existing law against discriminatory dress code to become fully effective.

This type of request is also against the law in many countries, so you don’t have to accept it. You can simply say no to it, and if your employer insists threatening you that you might lose your job if you don’t follow this rule, you should take the case to the authorities.

How do I know if the company’s dress code is discriminatory?

As you probably understood, it is OK that a company have a dress code. But it should be the same for both women and men; be related to the job and a reasonable requirement; allow employers to follow their religious and cultural beliefs, and be fair with people with disabilities.

We can add to it that a dress code shouldn’t set the LGBT community aside for gender issues. And if the dress code of the company that you work for doesn’t meet the criteria above, you might need to be concerned about it.

The bottom line

Dress code is something normal and expected in many professions. It helps people to identify what you do, distinguishing the manager from the junior at a glance. It also ensures that health and safety procedures will be followed and that you and your co-workers will be home safe and sound at the end of each day.

But if you feel that your personal identity is being ignored beyond what customers are expecting, you don’t have to accept it. Just make sure that you are right and then take action against discrimination or sexualisation.

Be aware that you might lose your job, as the law is quite ineffective when it comes to protecting your employment status. But you probably don’t want to be working for this type of company anyway, so don’t let it stop you.

About Eliza Medley

Eliza Medley is an experienced tutor, educator, and psychologist from Orlando who works for Eliza is fond of blogging, motivation articles, and education tips. Follow @Eliza_Medley on Twitter.

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