Q&A: Are Personal Appearance Policies Outdated?

By Toddi GutnerBusiness on Main

Question: I want my employees to look professional and approachable, so we have a policy that no visible piercings or tattoos are allowed. My employees are telling me that this is an outdated policy. Am I behind the times with what's acceptable nowadays?

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Answer: This is a classic generational clash in the workforce. Our economy has three generations working side by side: the baby boomers (those born between 1945 and1964, approximately), Generation X (1965-1982, approximately) and Generation Y (1983-2003, approximately).

As you might expect, each generation brings its own understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the workplace. It isn’t surprising, then, that there’s some disagreement about what constitutes an appropriate professional dress code. We’ve seen similar conflict when it comes to email etiquette as well, with younger employees reverting to text talk like “C u l8r!” in the context of work emails. So what’s a company to do? Generational differences aside, every business owner has a brand to uphold. And how employees dress is part of a business’s brand image. Consider what’s standard across your industry — maybe it’s uniforms, funky clothes that show your staff’s personality, or suits and ties. For example, a small design firm, a vintage boutique, a tech and gadget store, and a small law firm are likely to have different dress codes. Think about what your customers or clients expect from your business — and set a dress code that matches that brand expectation.

When in doubt, unless you are Mark Zuckerberg — who has earned the privilege to wear his ever-present hoodie in the workplace — professional dress is still de rigueur. Though it may seem old-fashioned, appropriate dress in today’s workplace still excludes excessive showing of skin (e.g., spaghetti strap camisoles or shirts that bare your midriff), extremely short skirts or shorts, tank tops for men, and, yes, visible piercings or tattoos.

Even though piercings and tattoos have crossed over into the mainstream, most professionals do their best to cover them up in the workplace. It goes back to that old adage: “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” Whether we like it or not, first impressions go a long way.

We all like to be able to express ourselves — even managers. I knew a CEO of a Wall Street brokerage firm who had a pierced ear. However, he chose to wear his diamond stud on the weekends, not in the office. In my current workplace, some employees, most of whom are in their early 20s, have a selection of tattoos — they just dress in a way that their tattoos aren’t visible at work. Again, it’s always good to be able to express yourself, but it’s essential to know when and where that expression is appropriate.

— Toddi Gutner

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