What not to wear – in the workplace (Editor’s notes)

Dealing with dress code issues a common HR problem
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/20/2011

I once asked a small group of HR professionals in Edmonton to talk about the challenges and problems they face that an outsider would never guess were occupying their time.

The answer came back, almost as a chorus, “dress code.” And everyone who didn’t say it in unison nodded in agreement.

Surprised? Then there’s a good chance you’re not in HR — because the stories came fast and furious about employees wearing inappropriate clothing and the corresponding complaints from colleagues.

Now, in addition to all that great anecdotal evidence, there is a bit of scientific data to prop up the claim dress code violations are a significant workplace problem.

Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa, and researcher Aanchal Sharma of McMaster University in Hamilton, conducted a study that found the presence of a young, physically fit and provocatively dressed woman prompted hostility from 97 per cent of women taking part in the experiment, according to the Toronto Star.

“We’ve heard over and over women describe the toxic relationship they have with other (female) employees,” Vaillancourt told the Star. “And we know that dressing a certain way will garner a negative reaction, so (the study) has a lot of implications.”

The study was interesting. Vaillancourt brought female subjects in to be interviewed about resolving conflict. While they were waiting, she had an assistant drop in — sometimes the woman was dressed provocatively in a miniskirt, sometimes she was dressed casually in khakis and a blue top.

The interview subjects barely noticed her when she was wearing the khakis. But when the miniskirt was in play, almost every woman made negative comments, ranging from criticizing the outfit to musing about her promiscuity.

That’s remarkable — and it speaks clearly to why many HR professionals find themselves spending far more time than they’d like dealing with the clothes employees choose to wear to work.

One probably wouldn’t have guessed the importance of a dress code in the workplace. But after seeing the results of the research, and thinking about all the ramifications when it comes to bullying, gossip and a corresponding affect on morale, engagement and productivity, it’s easy to understand why the answer from that group in Edmonton came in chorus form.

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