The pool retail world is a fairly informal industry — the central product, after all, is leisure. But formality is subjective, and in a country that in two generations went from three-piece suits at baseball games to sneakers at weddings, written dress codes are beginning to feel like workplace relics from a bygone era.
Appearance still matters, however, and a well-planned dress code can promote employee cohesion, boost morale and encourage individual expression.
The Law Versus the Reality
According to Business & Legal Resources (BLR), there is no federal law governing employee dress codes. Employers may implement whatever dress guidelines they feel are appropriate, it says — followed by a whole bunch of “buts.”
Personal attire intersects with complex and weighty issues like gender, religion, ethnicity and freedom of expression. The law allows wide latitude for employers to tell workers what to wear, but also protects employees’ rights to practice their beliefs and express their heritage without being stifled. Misinterpretations or pent-up resentment can land a business in the crosshairs of a discrimination lawsuit or social-media backlash.
Mark J. Marsen, director of human resources for the nonprofit Allies for Health and Wellbeing, says you can avoid friction in all but the most extreme cases by adhering to two basic principles.
“If you’re going to make any type of statement, whether it’s a verbal policy or written, it had better do two things,” says Marsen, who also serves as a member on the Expertise Panel with the Society of Human Resource Management. “One, it has to make sense for the business and two, it had better be applied consistently.”
Does it Make Sense For the Business?
Although Marsen says he believes that “there needs to be at least some basic written standard” regarding appearance, he stresses that attire should be regulated only when necessary.
“It should be something along the lines of, ‘We expect all employees to dress appropriately for the business that’s being conducted, including A, B, C and D — whatever is important,’ ” Marsen says. “This is where you’ll have qualifications in regards to safety, or qualifications in regard to cleanliness and hygiene. For everything else, trust your employees to be adults and to make that determination for themselves.”
Basically, the first half of Marsen’s two-part mantra is to always ask — from beards and visible tattoos to blue jeans and shorts — how the business would benefit from enforcing a rule.
The second part is to ensure consistent application with virtually no exceptions.
Consistency Above (Almost) All Else
Standards will vary depending on department and activity, Marsen says. Workers in the retail store, for example, might wear shirts with logos. Service and installation techs might be required to wear steel-toed boots. White-collar attire might be appropriate for the sales team.
“But if you require your female employees to wear bikinis at trade shows,” Marsen says. “You’d better require the men to wear Speedos.”
There are, however, a few big exceptions — namely gender, ethnicity and religion.
Marsen gave the example of a business that forbids hats. If it’s important for a Jewish person to wear a yarmulke, however, consistency takes a back seat — unless there’s a compelling business reason.
“I can’t think of scenario where wearing a yarmulke would place an undue burden,” he says. “But if a person’s religious attire is loose fitting and they work around machine parts, there’s a compelling reason for safety to not make the accommodation. It’s generally best practice to accommodate unless there is some business reason not to. Just never make those decisions based on preference.”
‘We Don’t Need to Look Like Robots’
Scott Clark, owner of the Nevada-based Spa & Sauna Co., puts Marsen’s theories into practice. His business has an established dress code, “But we’ve rarely had to strictly enforce it,” he says.
Although his service teams “wear some semblance of a uniform,” they dress primarily for the work and the weather. In fact, his employees across all divisions have proven able to dress appropriately with virtually no direction.
“We offer logo shirts, but we don’t require our sales team to wear them,” Clark says. “We aren’t car dealers with suits and ties. Our customers are coming in on their leisure time and we’re not looking to out-dress them.”
He provides a few shirts for those who want them and replenishes them every so often, although it’s up to the staff to maintain and clean them — both of which are policies Marsen recommends.
“Our employees just sort of know not to dress too conservative but also not to dress like they’re going out to a club,” Clark says. “We don’t need to look like robots.”
There appears to be a consensus in the pool and spa industry that if you hire good people with good judgment and common sense, they’ll be able to get dressed and come to work all by themselves. But even in the most informal settings, it’s still wise to have a written standard that is applied consistently to everyone, yet is flexible enough to accommodate the individual exceptions that are sure to arise. In the real world in this industry, hard-and-fast rules about what a well-dressed employee looks like rarely hold up to reality. “In so many cases,” Marsen says, “the answer is, ‘It depends.’”