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.


Death to the Executive Washroom

outhouse-200x300Have you taken a trip to a school lately – grammar school, high school, university?  If so you’ve probably noticed the continuing tradition of labeling parking spots for a select few employees (Principal, Assistant Principal, 2nd Assistant Principal, etc).

This is true at a number of corporate organizations as well; the C-Suite folks get reserved parking spots right by the door while Joe and Sally lunch-bucket must park several blocks away between a 10’ x 10’ dumpster and an alley where shady transactions occur between un-showered people of indeterminate genders. Meanwhile, Bill the CFO doesn’t have to get a splash of rainwater on his shiny oxfords as he meanders into the building from his parking spot 10 feet from the door.

There’s collective indignation when we read about the lavish executive perks that have long been a mainstay of gilded boardrooms – chauffeured cars, private jets, a suite at the local ballpark.  For decades corporate boards have reminded us that many of these things are necessary to attract and retain senior executives although nowadays it does appear as if some compensation committees are taking a tighter look at pay/perk packages being offered.  And so we applaud and say “well at least they understand the moral outrage from those of us here in the 99%.”

In reality though many of us come face-to-face with social stratification perks that exist in our own organizations everyday.  Our egalitarian, flattened hierarchy, “we’re all in this together” companies continue to subtly differentiate between classes of employees and thus send signals that are quite often in conflict with their stated feel-good values about teamwork, openness and a belief that “every employee is as valuable as the next.”  Executives rule from the top floor with its mahogany lined halls and plush carpeting, VPs get offices, and everyone else finds themselves relegated to a cubicle.  Managers and directors have slightly larger cubicles with higher walls although, naturally, directors have a few more feet of cubicle space as befits their loftier title.

The mailroom and purchasing department staffers, down on the lowest floor near the loading docks, have access to one dimly lit unisex bathroom. The gals in HR have bowls of potpourri on their bathroom counters and a private quiet room with a couch.  The senior executives have separate facilities safely behind the glass doors that seal off mahogany row from the rest of the company; surely you can’t expect the SVP of Marketing to stand at a urinal next to Phil from IT.

Expense accounts.  Golf outings during the day.  The ability to slip out and attend professional association lunch meetings or evening networking receptions that start at 5 PM.  An office with a window, a nameplate on the door and an ergonomic chair personally fitted to alleviate lower back pain, and a bottle of marihuana oil for pain relief.  The ability to park, for free, close to the office building as opposed to 4 blocks away accompanied by the necessity to pay a hefty monthly parking fee. The freedom to enjoy some work-life integration and flexible hours with no need to worry about getting scolded disciplined chastised for being 15 minutes late to work because your daughter’s school bus was late.

Many of these things are viewed as being part of the rite of professional passage.  If you strive to do well, get promoted and become a senior staffer or manager then you too can be treated a little better.  “It’s the American way” we say while reminding ourselves of Horatio Alger (even though many people in 2014 wouldn’t know Horatio Alger if he fell out of a tree in front of them).

‘With grit and determination come rewards’ could be the collective mantra of the workplace; this is not just true in ‘corporate’ entities but in government, non-profits and, well, any business.

And I concur; hard work will garner benefits and should be rewarded.

But sometimes organizations, without even thinking about it, continue to promote a culture of the haves vs. the have nots; the royals vs. the unwashed masses; the chosen vs. the worker bees.  It brings to mind what the pigs had to say in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

*** this post originally ran at the HR Schoolhouse


Running the Foot Race

foot raceI spent some time with a client this morning and the organization’s leader used an analogy during his comments at an all employee meeting that resonated quite strongly with the group.

He compared living our lives to running a foot race.

Certainly this sounds familiar; “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” has, of course, become another business cliche. Yet this morning’s topic veered into some territory that spoke to more than just a personal approach to getting stuff done. Among the things he pointed out:

  • When you’re running life’s foot race you’ll encounter obstacles (hills, pebbles, holes or any number of things) that may cause you to trip or fall
  • Don’t let the foot race get you weary; this takes training and building up your stamina
  • If you notice a fellow runner falter or stumble, your role is to provide assistance and pick him/her up
  • If you successfully run the foot race you can then learn to “run with the horses”

This was not a rah-rah “let’s all get to work and hit the next big target” pep session. Rather it was a reminder to everyone in attendance that the challenges encountered in life’s foot race are not insurmountable. Employees bring their personal lives to work with them every day; they don’t stop running the race just because they’ve walked through the office door.  And that’s…. OK. That’s human.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” he reminded everyone. “Support each other in your individual foot races and then together we can run with the horses.”






The Aftermath #50ShadesofHR

Employee complaint form



February 16, 2015

TO:                   All Employees

FROM:           Janet Jones, Director of Human Resources

RE:                   Inappropriate Workplace Conversations

It has come to my attention that a fair number of you saw the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” this past weekend. Some of you, according to my sources, attended multiple screenings.

It is apparent that many of you have forgotten that Acme Corporation’s Workplace harassment policy prohibits “verbal or physical conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” (Section III, subsection A, paragraph 2).

While talk of one’s ‘inner goddess’ may not, on the surface, create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, when followed up with a discussion about the color of one’s cheeks it may cause others to feel uncomfortable.

Please also note:

  • It is not appropriate to begin using “Laters, baby” as your email signature
  • We will not, despite repeated requests, be turning the vacant office on the 5th floor into a “Red Room”
  • Corsets are not appropriate workplace attire
  • It is neither funny nor professional to inform a co-worker “I’d like to bite that lip.”
  • We will no longer allow college journalism students to interview our top executives
  • This memo is not tongue in cheek; it is not advisable, after all, to use the phrase “tongue in cheek.”

Thank you for your attention to this matter and please see me with any questions.


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word.