Hammer Time: The HR Dress Code Game

hammer timeJeans. Jeans with holes or frayed edges. Dark denim. Light denim. Skirts that are too short. Cleavage that is too prominent.

Underwear. No underwear. Dreadlocks. Hair that’s not a “color found in nature.” Facial hair. Hair on men that extends below the collar. Earrings that are too big. Earrings on men. Piercings in places other than ears. Piercings in places other than ears that shouldn’t be visible through one’s clothing…but are.

Tattoos. Visible tattoos. Excessive tattoos. Tattoos of questionable subject matter.

Flips Flops. Open toed shoes. Athletic shoes. Pants that are too tight. Pants that are not held up with a belt. Shirts tucked in. Shirts not tucked in.

A dress. A skirt. A pant suit (a la Hilary Clinton). A skirt suit (a la Carly Fiorina). Cardigans with pockets. Cardigans without pockets. Pantyhose. Bare legs. Flats. 3” Heels. Boots. Boots with zippers. Ankle boots. Rain boots.

Muted colors. Ties with tasteful designs. Shirts with a collar. Khakis. No more than 4 pockets. Cargo pants. Parachute pants.

Hammer time.


In the late 1980’s, in my first in-house corporate HR gig at a bank, I was asked to review and rewrite the HR Dress Code Policy. The existing policy was 7 pages long.

After I drafted the revisions and we held numerous meetings with The-Powers-That-Be, the policy was successfully streamlined. To 5 pages. Yay HR!

I fondly recall my greatest victory of this months-long skirmish.

The SVP of retail banking (he was over the entirety of the branch network) was adamant – ADAMANT – that tellers in the drive-thru windows wore either blazers or cardigan sweaters that had no pockets (note: we did not supply uniforms; employees were expected to dress in business attire).

This issue of pockets on sweaters drove this man absolutely crazy; he was fixated. He also wanted to ensure that women did not have pockets on the back (buttocks) of their pants or skirts. Why he was looking – I don’t know. That was another matter all together.

Now mind you. This was in Wisconsin; cold, frigid Wisconsin. Wind chills below zero numerous mornings and evenings during the winter. And these tellers, working in the drive thru, were getting hit full blast by frigid air with each and every transaction. Since they couldn’t wear gloves (hard to count the money…ya know?) a nice sweater with pockets was often a necessity. Unless they wanted to look like Bob Cratchit in every single production of “A Christmas Carol” wearing those gloves with the cut out fingers. (Note; I love those gloves).

Yet here’s why I think I remember this hard-fought battle of something that, in the scheme of things, really amounted to nothing: common sense ultimately prevailed.

Eventually all The-Powers-That-Be realized that they countless hours they were spending arguing the minutia of the dress code (arguments over inches of hemlines… I’m not kidding) were so inconsequential and, at the end of the day, way below their pay grades.

They agreed – finally – to let managers manage.



But this ancient game of the battle-of-the-dress-code has not gone away. Somewhere, right this moment, I guarantee you some HR professional is fretting over a “Dress Code Policy” issue. He’s diving deep down into the most mundane and useless details that, let’s face it, have nothing to do with how someone is performing their job.

A few weeks ago my friend ‘Amy’ (we’ll call her Amy) shared a recent experience she had interviewing for the Executive Director position with a local non-profit agency. She was one of two finalists brought in to interview with the agency’s Board of Directors; a board that, since it’s here in my town, is undoubtedly filled with boring corporate executives from the same 20 companies that dominate every board and numerous ladies-who-lunch and fill their busy days with tennis lessons at the Country Club and Junior League activities.

Amy, an extraordinarily accomplished and experience Executive Director/Non-Profit leader, dressed conservatively; dark pant suit with blouse, tasteful jewelry, and sensible pumps. She had a great interview; confidently discussing her experience and bona fides. Alas, the other candidate got the job offer.

During a follow-up call with the recruiter who ran the search Amy probed for feedback. “The Board truly had a difficult decision to make,” he told her. “Both of your backgrounds were very well suited.”

“Did you get any specific feedback?” she asked. “Any things I could adjust in future interviews?”

“Well there was one piece of feedback” said the recruiter. “One of the female board members noted that you wore a pants suit instead of a skirt or a dress with a jacket. She didn’t think that was appropriate.”

The game continues.


2 thoughts on “Hammer Time: The HR Dress Code Game

  1. Madness. Such madness. Although I agree appropriate attire is necessary in some and many professional situations, micromanaging what employees wear to this extent is madness.

    I also happen to be a lover of pockets.

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