Dealing with dress codes

by Raymond W. Neal

Table of Contents


Creating a dress code for the workplace can be a tricky thing. This web page is intended to provide library managers with insights into some of the issues they will face if they decide to write such a policy. There are many things to keep in mind as you work on this:

Why are we implementing a dress code?

In libraries with a great deal of interaction with the public, image is very important. Many people will be turned off by staff members who dress sloppily or wear clothing with potentially offensive images or words. This type of dress can also have a serious negative impact on employee performance as well. If a coworker proves to be a distraction, the other employees will have a hard time concentrating on their work.

In a library where the staff only interact with other employees of the same company, improper attire can project a negative image as well. If the library staff does not dress as well as coworkers, there will be some resentment. At the very least, the library staff needs to dress as well as the users of the library in a corporate setting.

If there are problems with a particular employee dressing badly or not maintaining proper hygiene, the option of setting a dress code for all staff members is an easy, non-confrontational way of solving a problem. Many librarians have an aversion to possible conflict in the workplace and want to avoid any possible altercations. While this is not an optimal stance for a manager to take, we must face the fact that this is so. It can be said that establishing a dress code is an overreaction or a show of cowardice in this situation, but it can be a relatively pain free method of dealing with this problem as well as eliminating this predicament in the future.

What do we need our employees to wear?

Above all, the employees need to be neat. The dress may be casual or more formal business attire, but this is something that will vary greatly from setting to setting. In Trinity University’sElizabeth Huth Coates Library’s dress code, there are not specifically banned articles or manners of clothing, but there is the excellent summation of proper attire: "Dress that is extremely casual could be interpreted to mean that we don’t care."

Before creating the code, seek input from upper management and perhaps the user group you serve. They will probably be more than happy to tell you how they would like to see the library staff dressed. Remember, though, to take this advice with a grain of salt and sift through the feedback carefully.

Some things that dress codes routinely ban include:

If the library serves a corporate setting, the library staff should at least dress as well as those they serve. Dressing more casually than your users causes some resentment of the library staff, and any good manager knows that support from within the organization is key to the library’s success.

The elements of the code must fall in line with federal anti-discrimination and disability regulations.

Be aware of possible conflicts with federal laws while you work on your dress code. Some things that you may not think of that your library would ban would violate anti-discrimination or disability laws. This would include:

If you have specific concerns about what to wear and what not to wear, address those concerns specifically in the text of your policy.

In other words, put everything in writing. You will save yourself countless headaches from challenges and interpretations of the dress code if you are very specific on potential problem issues. Many libraries are vague in their dress code statements, allowing employees leeway in what they wear, but this causes confrontations when there is a difference in interpretation of the rules. Take a look at the web pages below for some examples of specific policies.

Again, go through the procedure of determining what is appropriate for your situation. If there are recurring problems with employees wearing a particular sort of improper attire, address this in the dress code.

Keep in mind that many of your employees will object to rules that require them to completely revamp their wardrobe. Dress policy should not completely change the manner of dress in the library, but rather reinforce already existing standards. If you suddenly decide that every library employee must wear business suits instead of casual shirts and slacks, you may find yourself having to restaff the library.

Make sure that all new hires read and understand the code.

When you hire a new employee make them aware of the policy. You will avoid future conflict this way. Make the dress code a part of the orientation process for new employees.

Seek employee input as well as management’s viewpoint.

If your staff plays a part in creation of the dress code, implementation of the code will be a much more positive experience. Any time employees are allowed to help create the rules it makes them feel more a part of the company and improves morale. You may want to select one or two employees to serve on a committee that will create the code, or simply poll the employees on what they would like to see in such a code. Ask them what types of clothing they think is inappropriate for the job, and what is suitable. Do not forget to get input from your users and your supervisors. They do play a major part in deciding what is appropriate for the library staff since they are the people that deal with the staff on a regular basis.

Examples of dress codes:

Elizabeth Huth Coates Library, Trinity University

Hennepin County Library, Minnesota


If you have any other questions about creating a dress code policy, please consult the resources below. I used many of these in creating this web page and they are quite informative. Many of them are not written from the perspective of a librarian, but the lessons they offer apply as equally to our world as other parts of organizations.


Web Sources for Further Information: Examples of improper workplace attire and possible solutions.

Casual Dress Code by Business Research Lab: Gives examples of how to define "business casual" and implement the concept into a dress code. This is an online library of articles for managers. The link takes you to the first in a series of articles about dress codes. The articles discuss everything from legal issues to safety standards. Click on the "Next Page" button to go through all of the articles. Highly informative.

Print Bibliography

These aided me greatly in creating this web page. If you want to read further on the subject after perusing the above links, I highly recommend the following articles:

Presents a hypothetical case study about proactively developing a dress code for library staff members rather than responding to incidents. Includes discussion and analysis.

An employee wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt violates the Nancy L. McCarthy Library dress code, prompting a challenge of the code.

Discusses some trends in technology-related dress codes and standards, and how financial success is changing the way employees in the industry dress.

The author writes about dress codes among information technology companies and how they have changed in the past few years, and where the dress standards are heading. He gives some specific examples of clothing that provides a negative image in the workplace.

Relates how business casual wear can increase productivity at work. Also gives advice on how to define business casual attire in a written policy.

As body piercing and tattooing becomes more popular and accepted in mainstream American culture, more employees are showing up at work with these enhancements. If an employer believes that such bodily additions are a distraction or inappropriate for their company, they can create a policy that will eliminate potential problems with body art.

Library bans wearing clothing featuring the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo, citing it as a racist image. Employees pull the ACLU in for a court challenge.

Library bans facial jewelry as inappropriate in the workplace. Employees perturbed.

Offers examples of proper and improper manners of dress for the workplace and travelling.

Instead of letting employees leave early on Fridays, as is tradition among New York publishers, HarperCollins has designated Friday as "Casual Dress Day." This article discusses items that are and are not on the approved apparel list.

As casual dress days become more common with employers, confusion among employees about what is appropriate increases. Also discusses how some retailers are marketing the Business Casual look.

Any questions or comments? Please email the author at

This page created April 25, 2000 by Raymond W. Neal

IGN="RIGHT">This page created April 25, 2000 by Raymond W. Neal