Expert Advice

Office Dress Code Policy: Does My Nonprofit Need One?

| Updated April 17, 2018

Casual work clothes that are too-casual can diminish your nonprofit brand.

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, is joined by executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jesse Bethke Gomez, for the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc.

These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I am a relaxed individual and even though I am a nonprofit executive director, I do not wear a suit and tie to work — far from it.

As a leader, I embrace different clothing styles, cultural dress and individualistic apparel. The differences among us make the world a more interesting place, right?

Still, I have a few employees who take my laid-back attitude as a green light for coming to work like they just rolled out of bed. Worse, some take the term “casual” to a whole new level. Crumpled shorts and stained t-shirts are not proper work attire. These employees make us look sloppy and professionally disengaged.

How can I rein in these few renegades?

Kathryn says …

When I started my career in nonprofits, jeans were only allowed on Fridays and, by the executive director’s mandate, the jeans had to have creases. How things have changed! The movement towards a more casual apparel standard tends to fit better with nonprofit activities like driving in all kinds of weather and working outdoors or in people’s homes. The new standard supports a more egalitarian, less marked difference in the way consumers and service providers dress. This is a good thing, I think.

But there always seems to be that one person (or a handful of folks) who define business casual to mean beach shoes, shabby shorts, skimpy or revealing t-shirts (that’s both men and women) and “distressed” jeans. These clothing choices may be very attractive or stylish, but they are better suited to weekend social activities than to a nonprofit office or community-based work.

How do you encourage a more casual dress environment while still providing clear guidelines to those who are not using their best judgment (or any judgment at all) in their choice of work attire?

The answer: a written dress code that is drafted by representatives of all departments and is approved by your board of directors. It’s best to allow input from staff, which will help garner buy-in. Also, ask the board to give the final stamp of authority, which you may need when it comes time to enforce your dress code.

Your dress code should be very clear with no opportunity for loose interpretation. Create detailed lists of what is, and is not, acceptable attire for the office. I know it sounds a bit like you are creating the dress police, but your employees are all paid to represent your organization and their work clothing should reflect your nonprofit’s brand. Unless your nonprofit rents beach chairs or manages a midnight bowling alley, it is unlikely that beach or club wear is the community profile you are trying to maintain.

Once you have your dress code in writing and approved, review it with all staff members as a group and post it where staff can consult the guidelines if needed and make it a component of your employee policies and procedures.

What if someone still “crosses the line” in terms of apparel? Meet with them privately and talk it through, while maintaining your position and dress code as the final say. Give each person two or three chances before they are reprimanded for their infringements. Make sure that they understand that disciplinary documentation in their personnel file may impact their earnings or further professional opportunities. Help them understand why this issue is important: they represent your nonprofit.

One caveat: You may need to make an occasional exception to your policy. For instance, if someone needs to dress in flip flops because of an injury or illness, allow him or her to do so, but ask for a date when this adaptive footwear (or whatever) will no longer be necessary.

Everyone operates better as an individual and as part of a team when they understand the professional boundaries of their organization. Approach the task of creating a dress code as helping, rather than limiting, your nonprofit staff members and volunteers.

Jesse says …

I love this question — sometimes what we see is the opportunity to discover what really matters!

People generally have a sense of decorum and self-regulate according to an agency’s dress code, an employee handbook or the leadership style on what is appropriate work attire. We need to follow guidelines, yet if we only stop there, with extrinsic do’s and don’ts, we miss the opportunity to discover intrinsic motivation — a necessary ingredient for increasing quality and productivity.

The conscious connection for the manager and employee is from the standpoint of empathy, primarily the people who are served by the nonprofit enterprise. A fundamental question from this view of empathy is namely — how do people who are served by the enterprise respond to the professionalism of the agency representative, including work attire?

This question brings into focus a new area for our nonprofit sector called “customer appreciation” meaning that the organization is authentically interested in the feelings that people have about how well they are served by the enterprise. How people feel about the quality of services they receive is important and increasingly it doesn't matter whether the service provider is a nonprofit enterprise or a for-profit enterprise.

So let’s circle back to your question starting with crumpled shorts and stained t-shirts. The question for you as a manager is — how would you feel about receiving services, of any kind, from a person wearing crumpled shorts and a stained t-shirt? Ask any of your employees, how they would feel in receiving any service from a person wearing crumpled shorts and a stained t-shirt? Ask "what does customer appreciation mean to you?" to your enterprise, your employees and the people you serve.

People are intrinsically motivated by their own sense of purpose and a sense of what they do every work day that makes them feel good. Our mission as leaders is to help make the conscious connection between the employee and their own intrinsic motivation that matters for people who are served by the enterprise.

Customer appreciation requires empathy and a focus on how customers feel about the quality, professionalism and responsiveness of the services delivered by the enterprise. Intrinsic motivation and empathy create self-directed energy that aids the employee in advancing a never-ending pursuit in finding ways to increase their own sense of value that can unleash their pursuit of making a positive difference in the lives of people they serve throughout their careers. It also serves as a way in which employees not only self-regulate attire but find the energy to evolve and grow.

Now, your take!

Bob P. says ... I must disagree with the responses offered by the MissionBox experts in reply to this letter regarding workplace attire.

Kathryn’s advice was legalistic, would be cumbersome to effectuate, contained some dubious assertions and generally missed the mark. Jesse’s response danced tantalizingly close to the real issue here, but also missed the crucial point.

There are two topics presented in this exchange. The one that garnered the most attention was the question of what to do about employees whose dress is so inappropriate for the workplace as to allow for virtually no justification. But the other, more seminal topic is the issue of what constitutes appropriate workplace dress in the first place.

The author of the original message described himself as “a relaxed individual” and stated that he does not wear a suit and tie to work. Although he did not provide any further details, by adding “far from it” in regard to his not wearing a suit and tie, he invited valid questions about just how far down the scale he himself goes. The problem is that he has employees who choose to go farther than he does, coming to work looking, as he describes it, “like they just rolled out of bed,” some apparently showing up in crumpled shorts and stained t-shirts.

I believe the problem is that Kathryn and the author of the original message are mixing two very different considerations. The original author wrote that he “embraces different clothing styles [and] individualistic apparel.” Kathryn wrote that more casual apparel “supports a more egalitarian, less marked difference in the way consumers and service providers dress.” She added, “This is a good thing, I think.” That is a debatable point but is not the central issue. The key question is whether personal dress and business dress are the same things.

How people chose to dress on their own time is one thing. How they dress for work is another. When we dress for work we are not representing ourselves. We are representing the organization by which we are employed, its leadership, its board, and its supporters.

The author of the original letter wrote that “The differences among us make the world a more interesting place, right?” "Interesting” is not what workplace attire at a nonprofit agency should be about. Instead, as Jesse implies but does not state, it should be about respect, both for those we represent and those we serve.

Perhaps one of the worst pieces of advice I ever received was from a colleague (my supervisor at the time, in fact) who castigated me for wearing a suit for a presentation we made to an assembly of about 50 nonprofit managers. “These are nonprofit people,” he said. “They can’t afford nice clothes. You’re going to make them look bad.” Aside from the condescension in that statement, it was, in reality, his excuse for generally looking like an unmade bed. Fortunately for me, a co-worker later took me aside and suggested that instead of following my boss’ example, I should up my game in how I dressed. “You’re not dressing for you,” he said, “you’re dressing for them. It’s a sign of respect.”

This was the truth Jesse hinted at but failed to explicitly state. When we dress properly, we are showing respect for those our organizations exist to serve. This does not mean a morning coat or hats that would be appropriate for the Royal Ascot. But it does mean business attire that shows that we take our work and those we serve seriously, and a pantsuit for a woman or a dress shirt and tie for a man, could and should be part of that mix. Jeans, sweatpants, sweatshirts, sneakers, and T-shirts shouldn't be.

Jesse suggested that employees should be asked how they would feel being serviced by a person wearing crumpled shorts and a stained t-shirt. I’d go further and ask whether any of them would have shown up for their job interviews, the ones that resulted in the positions they now have, dressed as they do now for work. If the answer is “no,” then the logical follow-up is why they dress the way they do currently.

The MissionBox experts should have also told the self-congratulatory “relaxed” nonprofit executive director that he can’t have it both ways. He can’t embrace different styles and individualistic apparel and then suggest that there are some lines of difference or individualism that can’t or should not be crossed. Believing in and encouraging free personal expression “within limits” is contradictory, inconsistent, essentially dishonest and no way to lead. If Mr. Director is truly puzzled as to why some employees might show up in stained T-shirts (or ANY T-shirts, for that matter) perhaps he should look in a mirror. He might find his answer faster than he thinks.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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