No matter how "casual" a workplace's culture may be, most employers have some limits — a dress code or appearance policy, even an informal one. But if your written policies are vague about what constitutes "appropriate" work attire or appearance, you'll have to make judgment calls. Here's some advice that can help you make the right calls:
Safety concerns. Appearance standards tied to health or safety (for example, requiring workers to wear hairnets or protective clothing) should be non-negotiable. But realize that the connection to "safety" might not be obvious to your employees, and what seems like an open-and-shut matter to you can lead to worker unrest or even lawsuits.
For example, in a recent case, telephone line technicians are pursuing a grievance because the phone company ordered them to remove jewelry from their eyebrow piercings, and suspended them without pay when they refused. The company says this is for safety reasons — the jewelry can obstruct the line workers' vision — but has not been able to offer any real proof. The workers say they'll comply when the company restricts other employees from wearing other kinds of jewelry.
Gender impact. It's OK for appearance codes to be gender-specific — regulating, say, facial hair for men or the length of skirts for women. But it's not a good idea to have clearly more stringent standards for one gender. Too many managers (of either gender) will notice when a woman's clothing is too "revealing" or "inappropriate" but make no such judgments of male attire. Conversely, other employers have required their female workers to wear revealing uniforms, or to use makeup and hairspray — and have faced discrimination suits as a result.