New Dress Code and Employee Satisfaction Brewing at Starbucks

Dress code concept.Much to the excitement of its employees, or as it refers to them “partners,” Starbucks has released a new dress code, the “Starbucks Dress Code Look Book,” seeking to strike a balance between allowing employees to engage in personal expression while maintaining “a clean, neat and professional appearance.”

By emphasizing inclusion, personal style and customization, the dress code aims to increase employee happiness and let employees express themselves in the workplace. In an extremely detailed manner, Starbucks provides clear guidelines and color photographs to let employees know that the following are now welcome:

1. Shirts in a variety of colors beyond black and white including, gray, navy and brown and subdued small-print low-contrast patterns BUT NOT t-shirts, hoodies, plunging necklines or shirts with distracting details, patterns or logos.

2. An assortment of hats including fedoras, bowlers, beanies, baseball caps, newsboys and panama hats BUT NOT bucket hats, berets, cowboys hats or hats sporting large logos.

3. Accessories such as ties and scarves in solid colors, simple patterns or prints BUT NOT neon, white, loud or distracting patterns or graphics that clash with or cover the Starbucks apron.

4. Blue jeans (so long as they are in a dark wash and not a light tone) as well as pants, shorts, skirts, or dresses in black, gray, navy, brown and khaki BUT NOT white, patched or distressed bottoms and not athletic wear or leggings.

5. Hair in any color (including unnatural colors like purple and pink), as long as it is permanent or semi-permanent and tidy, clean, brushed and kept away from the face BUT NOT sprays, glitters, chalks or temporary products as this may compromise food safety.

Starbucks had previously amended its dress code policy in 2014 to permit:

• Piercings of no more than two earrings per ear as well as small ear gauges and small nose studs BUT NOT septum piercings or rings or any other pierced jewelry or body adornments including tongue studs; and
• Visible tattoos BUT NOT on the face or neck and as long as the tattoos do not contain obscene, profane, racist, sexual or objectionable words or imagery.

The Starbucks Dress Code Look Book is also notable as it takes into account:

• The right of employees to wear medical alert necklaces;
• The right of pregnant women to wear stretchy material and longer shirts;
• The right of employees to request an accommodation based on religious beliefs or a disability; and
• The right of employees to wear union buttons that do not interfere with safety, threaten to harm customer relations or unreasonably interfere with Starbucks’ public image.

The dress code advises employees to see management with any questions and lets employees know that their supervisor has the ultimate authority to decide what is permissible within the confines of the dress code. It also warns that if an employee comes to work dressed in an inappropriate or unacceptable manner, the employee may not be not permitted to start his or her shift.

Stuart Buttrick, a partner with Faegre Baker Daniels LLP’s labor and employment practice group in Indianapolis shared this thoughts with XpertHR:

“In my view, I think Starbucks’ decision to loosen its dress code is a harbinger of things to come for employers whose workplace dress requirements are not constrained by safety-related considerations. As employers continue to try to recruit and retain, millennials, many of whom place a premium on individuality, creativity, and “non-traditional” workspaces, allowing more individual creativity in conforming to a broad-based dress code strikes me as an easy way for an employer to differentiate itself with this demographic.

“It also permits national employers to more closely tailor their workplaces to the locality in which employees work – which, for example, would allow large national retailers or restaurateurs to give each location more of a local feel. Of course, as Starbucks’ did, employers who allow employees more latitude in dress standards must still have requirements prohibiting discriminatory and offensive language and employers still need to be mindful of their obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for religious-related clothing.”

Jeremy M. Mittman, Special Employment Counsel at Proskauer Rose in Los Angeles, adds that “Starbucks’ new policy certainly is cutting edge. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words–the use of color photographs to bring the policy to life is especially creative, and no doubt will be adopted by other companies who wish to bring greater clarity to their dress code policies,” says Mittman.

“Employees now more than ever wish to express their individualism in the workplace, and Starbucks’ policy strikes a nice balance between allowing employees to express their individuality in the workplace while still keeping in mind the customer-centric environment in which they work.”

So what can employers and HR take away from all of this change? Here are four takeaways employers can apply to their own workplace grooming and appearance policies:

1. An employer has the right to impose guidelines regarding employee dress code and appearance in the workplace and advise employees about what is acceptable and unacceptable.

In creating any dress code, it is critical to take into account:

  •  Safety and health considerations and hazards;
  • The amount of interaction employees have with customers/clients and third parties;
  • The employer’s public image; and
  • The employer’s business needs and the particular industry – whether the workplace environment requires a more formal and conservative dress code or a more casual and relaxed one.

2. An employer should make sure to publicize the dress code and clearly communicate it to all employees and supervisors and make sure that it is part of the employee handbook.

3. Management may reserve discretion, and supervisors retain the right to determine what is appropriate within the employer’s guidelines and the authority to discipline employees for dress code violations.

4. An employer may need to provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on religion, disability or membership in another protected class.



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