With Gen Y firmly established in the workplace, traditional dress codes are largely a thing of the past. For women, “smart” no longer necessarily translates to a black skirt suit (below the knee) and a white blouse, and chinos and a shirt are often considered relatively smart for men.

However, with the departure of dress codes comes a new and murky area. Where does smart end and inappropriate begin? And is it patronising to enforce rules around these grey areas?

The dress code question is particularly hazardous for women, where the scope to get it right, and to make mistakes, is much wider. “Smart” is also subjective. While many would consider a floral dress and blazer to be smart, others would disagree.

So is a dress code really necessary to help women to navigate these unspoken rules, or does it patronise women to assume that they cannot choose appropriate clothing?
It seems there are four ways to go. The first is to let the idea of a dress code go altogether and to allow employees to wear whatever they deem to be appropriate. The second is to impose a strict dress code that details exactly what people have to wear. The third is a “wear what you want within reason” policy, detailing what is and isn’t acceptable. The fourth is to only have a dress code for client meetings.

If you do go with the first option and choose to have no official dress code, then be aware that enforcing one “as you go” may be seen as unfair and bring down morale. It may also make woman feel singled out, particularly if there is a policy surrounding length of skirts or something similarly subjective. It can mean that unspoken rules only apply to some. If there’s nothing written down, it’s best not to enforce policy that doesn’t exist.

Having a strict dress code is equally dangerous as it can feel draconian and restricting. It can be interpreted as a total lack of trust in employees and can lead to resentment and a more formal culture than you may have intended.

The third option seems to be a happy medium, but it has to state clearly where the boundaries lie. For example, it’s insufficient to state that “short skirts” are unacceptable. It’s better to specify what “short” means. That way people are free to make their own judgements but know where the line is between appropriate and less so.

The most important thing about any dress code is to be consistent. If you single somebody out for breaking said dress code, regardless of whether it’s implicit or explicit, then that could be interpreted as discrimination. A dress code has to apply to everyone, from MD to intern, otherwise it will breed discontent and is not worth enforcing.

In almost all cases, employees are quite savvy and can be trusted to choose their office attire wisely and what’s acceptable differs from industry to industry, even from office to office. With that in mind, everyone has a different approach, but the most important thing is to be fair. Good luck!