Should Your Shop Have a Dress Code?

Jul 6, 2011

The employees at Greenway Auto Repair in Phoenix used to wear an all-white uniform. Though the white pants and work shirts did reflect the desert heat well, not all of the employees were fans.

“A lot of times the guys here, when they would wear all white, they felt that they were bakers or house painters, because they wear that, too,” said Bill MacKenzie, the shop’s president. “Everybody was happy when we went to the gray colors, with the exception of the heat that is drawn into the darker colors versus the white.”

Today, the employees at his shop wear solid gray pants and a pinstriped gray shirt. Having a dress code or uniform policy in place doesn’t mean your staffers have to look like milkmen or be uncomfortable. Shop owners today are implementing policies that allow their workers to look professional and unified, while, at the same time, dressing for safety and comfort.

“I have a lot of clients [that] when [they have their] clients or perspective clients visit, they want to see their employees to look professional, crisp and  sharp,” said Christopher J. Boman, a partner at the Irvine, California, office of Fisher & Phillips, a law firm that represents management in labor and employment law matters. “[A dress code conveys] a good professional image for the public, for perspective clients [and] existing clients.”

Dressed to Impress

Image was one of the reasons Mike Cooper instituted a dress code policy at Spanky’s Hot Rods and Customsin Heber Springs, Arkansas. All of the restoration shop’s employees wear company T-shirts over dark jeans or khaki pants.

“[I instituted the dress code] just to make it all look more professional,” Cooper said. “If everybody has a company T-shirt on, it just looks a lot better than if everybody’s walking around in just anything, an ordinary shirt.”

Dave DiMaria, owner of Vintage Car Works in Englewood, Colorado, instituted a dress code policy to reflect the value of the cars his restoration shop works on. His employees wear logo’d T-shirts or long-sleeve button-up shirts with clean jeans.

“We work on many high-end cars, some [are] seven-figure cars, and so in keeping with the quality of the cars we work on, I’ve always wanted the shop to be a neat place and all of the crew that works here to come in looking like [they’re] there for a reason,” he said.

Having a dress code or uniform policy in place can also boost your shop’s image with your employees.

“If the employees are all wearing uniforms, I think they feel like they’re more of a team or more sharing in the ownership of the business,” said Jerry Schnetzer, owner of Schnetzer’s Auto Upholstery, a trim shop in Fairfield, Ohio, his employees wear blue jeans with long- or short-sleeve shop shirts.

MacKenzie agrees. “It’s like if you had an army going to war and you had them dressed in uniform versus all their own particular clothes, it would look like a mob instead of an army,” he said. “[A dress code] gives some uniform consistency to the individuals, and makes them look like they’re part of a team.”

That team can extend to any events employees attend on behalf of their shop.

“If we’re at an event where we have vehicles or we have a display, they’re in the black,” said George Landis, president of Performance Perfection Center/SRC Automotive in Boca Raton, Florida, whose employees wear black shop T-shirts and Dickies work pants. “If they’re on payroll, they’re in the black; if they are there for pleasure, they can wear what they want.”

Walking Billboards

Shop owners have also discovered marketing benefits to having their employees dressed in company wear.

“A lot of [my employees], when they break for lunch, they go out to local establishments and sit down and eat, so right there you’re basically getting free advertisement,” said Jim Fitch, owner of United Auto Body, a restoration shop in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who requires employees to wear long- or short-sleeve shirts with the shop logo. “People will approach the guys during lunch, [and say] ‘I see you work for a body shop -¦’ and it’s really something how just that will actually bring business in the door.”

Landis of Performance Perfection Center/SRC Automotive has had similar experiences. “It gives brand identification,” he said of the uniform the employees of his mechanical, repair and tuning business wear. “Every time an employee goes for lunch or goes for a part, people see our name and usually ask questions, and we end up getting customers out of it.”

The dress code implemented by Raymond Klaver, owner of Southern Marine and Automotive in Guntersville, Alabama, helps him sell more product. The employees at his machine and engine building shop dress in jeans and shop or supplier T-shirts.

“I ask them to wear either our shirt or wear a shirt that advertises the products that we sell,” he said. “When they’re in the shop and working, that presence of a manufacturer is in front of [customers] and occasionally you’ll sell off of it. I think the biggest benefit [of this policy] is the possibility of selling more product.”

A Safe Workplace

Having a uniform or dress code policy in place can also protect your employees.

“I think having a uniform or dress code helps to prevent workplace injuries,” attorney Boman said. “If somebody’s wearing a baggy shirt that gets caught in a machine or a car engine, that baggy shirt could suck their hand in and they could get injured, so having a dress policy dovetails into preventing injuries in the workplace.”

Dressing for safety is a must at Southern Marine and Automotive.

“In the machine shop, there’s always sharp edges and metal, so anything you can do to protect limbs on a human body, you need to do,” Klaver said. “Jeans are rugged, they’re not going to stop everything but there’s a lot of times you’ll brush up against something and it may even tear the jeans but your leg survives, and if a hot chip pops off when you’re milling something, it’s not going to land on your skin. It’s just good common sense to do whatever you can do to protect the individual and yourself.”

Safety is also part of the dress code at Schnetzer’s Auto Upholstery.

“Our dress code encompasses a few other things, right down to the type of shoes [employees must wear],” owner Schnetzer said. “We do not allow our employees to wear tennis shoes or sandals because we’re in a shop environment, so we have it in our dress code that they are required to wear work shoes. They’re also required to always have their own safety glasses and work gloves.”

A dress code or uniform policy can prevent confrontations in the workplace.

“Having a dress policy is a means to prevent against harassment claims, it’s a means to prevent against discrimination claims, it’s a means to prevent claims regarding threats or actual workplace violence,” Boman said. “Some people like to wear politically charged statements, they wear shirts with comments that are antagonistic to some member of certain protected categories, it could be threats or language that could be construed as a threat.”

Mandating what your employees wear can alleviate those problems.

“It allows you to really control what your employees wear in the sense that if you have a dress code, then you know nobody’s ever going to wear something that might be a little distasteful to someone else,” Schnetzer said.

Proper Implementation

Whatever the goals for your dress code or uniform policy, whether to improve your shop’s image, sell more products or improve shop safety, it’s important to properly communicate the policy, ideally in writing.

“I think it’s absolutely imperative that the policy is written down and communicated to the employees,” Boman said. “An employer is going to have a difficult time enforcing a policy that it cannot show was communicated to all of the employees.”

“We recommend that the employees who receive a copy of the policy also acknowledge in writing receipt and understanding of their obligation to abide by that policy, that makes it much easier for an employer to enforce and defend against their actions if ever challenged,” Boman added.

Shop owners can consult with a labor attorney, or state and federal agencies to ensure their policies comply with various labor laws and regulations. Your obligations can vary by state and by industry, according to Boman.

“There is a law in California, Labor Code Section 2802, which states that employers are obligated to indemnify their employees for any costs and expenses they incur in performing their work responsibilities,” he said. “Employers who provide the uniform, that’s a great first step.”

“The other issue where employers sometimes get in trouble is when the employees are obligated to maintain the uniforms, such as dry cleaning,” Boman continued. “If I had to wear a tuxedo every day to come to work, obviously I would have to dry clean that, and if I incurred expense in dry cleaning that, [my] employer might run afoul of Labor Code Section 2802.”

All of the shop owners interviewed for this story provide at least shirts to their employees, with some also paying for cleaning. Others provide employees with more.

“We supply the shirts and they simply supply their own blue jeans, but we do give them $50 a year toward their blue jean allowance,” Schnetzer said. “Of course, as an employee, if you buy your own uniforms or your own clothing to wear to work, that is a tax-deductible item also, [but] we help them out a little bit with the jeans.”