Crime of Fashion

How to address dress code violations in even the most casual workplace.

Of all the business etiquette questions that come up throughout the year, attire is at the top of the list. Dress codes, especially those that are not explicit — think “casual Friday” — can be a mystery to even the most astute among us.

Whether your workplace has a specific and well-outlined dress code or a more ambiguous one that simply states “professional attire,” there will inevitably be times when someone or multiple people wear something management would rather not see at the office. When this happens, it’s time for corrective action, which, if not handled properly, can be awkward or embarrassing for all parties.

Recently, we had such an occurrence at the Renaissance Publishing offices. The CEO, Todd Matherne, noticed a growing fashion trend adopted by several employees and found it contrary to his expectations for office attire. The action he took was thoughtful, appropriate and effective, so (with his permission, of course) I’m sharing it as a great example of how to tackle this common issue.

Below is Matherne’s email, which had the subject line, “Dress for YOUR Success.”

“I will try and not make this so formal, but would like to note our office dress code. I know the dress style is different for everyone, but I do not think we should wear clothes that have fashion tears in an office environment. I know some of you have jeans or pants with tears/rips/holes, but that is not for the office. Here is what is in the handbook regarding dress:  


Employees are expected to dress appropriately for their position and work environment. If you have any questions concerning appropriate attire, contact your manager or the CEO.

For administrative, editorial and in-office staff it is pretty easy — you are in the office all day. But for sales — and for anyone really — I personally feel better when I ‘dress for success.’ You feel as good as you look and looking your best gives you a confident feeling and will help in sales all day long.  

“If you have any questions, please come see me.”

This email hits on all the right points.

The subject line is informative and positive. Being positive is important with this type of email, because you don’t want the recipients to open it already in a defensive state.

In the intro, his tone fits the “crime,” so to speak. It’s something important, but not grave.

Next, he proceeds in a non-accusatory tone without singling anyone out, thereby causing the aforementioned embarrassment. I also appreciated the acknowledgment that ripped jeans are a legitimate fashion trend (meaning he knows his audience, which is dozens of young, chic and fashionable women) and that the dress code does fluctuate somewhat between the different departments.

The part that follows is key: he cites the office handbook. It’s always important to refer to established company policy.

Matherne also offers up his personal philosophy on the matter: “dress for success.” This last part is a gift from the career gods because it’s not often that employees are given such direct insight into the CEO’s mind. Meaning, the boss just told you something that he thinks is important to his, and your, success. This is gold.

Finally, he avails himself to anyone who needs clarification, which is simply good leadership.

Corrective action isn’t something most of us look forward to, but when the time comes, it’s important to be direct, informed, considerate and, if necessary, to offer additional guidance. For the record, there have been no ripped jeans spotted at the office since the email was sent out.


Casually Speaking

Considering what type of dress code is best for your company’s productivity

Last year, a report in The Miami Herald cited a Society for Human Resources Management 2015 Employee Benefits Survey, which stated that 62 percent of businesses in the United States allowed casual dress once a week, while 36 percent allowed it daily. This was a marked increase over the 2014 numbers of 56 and 19 percent respectively. Many companies are trending toward a more casual dress code, which, depending on the industry, can be an advantageous switch.

The article also looked at the book “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing,” by Mike Slepian of Columbia Business School. Slepian says formal clothing is better suited to higher level, abstract thinking, because it promotes a feeling of power. For companies who want creative, big picture thinking, business attire is the way to go. Conversely, consider a casual dress code if you want employees to think more concretely and less abstractly. According to the article this works well for task-oriented jobs, such as coding.    

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to



Categories: Biz Etiquette, The Magazine