Employees Push Casual Dress Policy to the Limit

management Q&A

Employees Push Casual Dress Policy to the Limit

dress code

Q: Melanie is the manager of the six-person health information management (HIM) department at Holmes Hospital. Recently, the hospital announced a “casual dress” policy, and a memo from administration was issued. The hospital set only two limits: no jeans and no sneakers.

Some members of Melanie’s staff manage to maintain a professional demeanor while dressing casually. Others, however, have become downright sloppy about the way they dress for work, wearing faded T-shirts, stretchy leggings, shapeless sweatshirts and the like. And, now that the weather is getting warmer, Melanie is seeing “short” shorts, tank tops and flip flop sandals.

Melanie finds this type of dress personally irritating. She believes the HIM professionals at Holmes Hospital already suffer from a lack of professional recognition as it is, and she doesn’t see how dressing like a slob for work is going to help garner respect. But, personal beliefs aside, Melanie knows there is little she can do, as her employees are technically not breaking any rules.

Melanie feels strongly that her department should have some basic standards to follow regarding their attire at work. Should she create a department-wide dress code? Does she have to approach administration first?

A:As head of the HIM department and a professional, Melanie has the responsibility of seeing that the HIM department has a professional image. It is said to be true that an overall appearance and presentation creates a “positive” first impression. This may leave a more tangible impression because memory is more strongly influenced by pictures.

Because we form our initial impression within 30 seconds of meeting someone, it is important to be at our best, as we are representing our department and the facility throughout our day. It is a known fact that someone who dresses appropriately shows more self-esteem, and more often than not, is in control.

Because the facility has take it upon itself to establish a dress code, I would assume there would be documentation designating “responsibility” to the supervisor to see that the dress code within her area is appropriate, therefore giving leeway to developing her own departmental policy. By developing a departmental policy, Melanie can be more specific as to the type of dress code she expects within her department.

I don’t think Melanie needs to approach administration first, but it might be to her advantage to submit a draft of the policy to alert them of the dress code within her department. By doing this, she shows her support to improve the present image and her support of the facility’s goals.

–Malvina M. Cloonan,


A: Melanie has a problem that is commonplace in many HIM departments. In an effort to create a “fun” atmosphere in the workplace, hospitals are allowing employees to work in clothes that were previously reserved for housework, gardening and recreational activities. The work climate and culture of HIM departments is changing to meet the demands of a younger and more diverse workforce. As professional dress relaxes and HIM professionals come to work dressed for play, it will be even more difficult to promote our unique skills and abilities and be taken seriously as professionals.

For us old-timers who were required to wear dresses to high school and would consider body piercing and tattoos as inappropriate for the office, this “dress down” philosophy can be downright distressing! I have worked long enough to have seen it all in HIM departments–rainbow hair, ballet slippers (yes, toe shoes), tattoos, pierced noses and lips, miniskirts, halter tops, too-tight leggings and wind suits on the job. It is really amazing what some people think qualifies as business casual.

The initial approach that Melanie takes should be positive rather than punitive. Issuing a departmental dress code stricter than the hospital-wide policy is bound to foster resentment. If Melanie can get the employees to dress professionally by their own initiative, no dress code rules will be necessary.

A helpful beginning might include a lunch or evening invitation for an “image consultant” to present professional war-drobe tips in the spirit of “dress for success.” This consultant would be asked to demonstrate ideas for outfits appropriate in a health care business situation. All employees should be invited to attend but not required, as it would not be scheduled during paid time. If there is a cost, it could be shared with other departments who may be having the same challenges.

At a departmental meeting following this lunch or evening session, Melanie should ask those who attended to share their thoughts on what was presented. Specifically, she should ask each department employee to define what they think an HIM professional should wear at work to create a confidence level in the customers they serve.

Because this is a small group, the group should be able to come to a consensus on what is acceptable for the HIM department. This would be a great time to talk about other professional growth activities such as the development of presentation skills or departmental quality improvement projects. If no one chooses to attend, Melanie can present her own report of the meeting to start the discussion.

From this session, Melanie can formalize some goals for im-proving departmental image that the group can buy into. If the entire group sincerely be-lieves that the sloppy T-shirts and flip-flops are OK, Melanie will have to seek a compromise unless she wants to make an issue that could cause serious conflict. If she is really adamant about a mandated dress code in spite of nonacceptance by the majority of staff, then the problem should be discussed with administration. As a department leader, Melanie must seek permission to enforce a dress code stricter than the hospital-wide policy.

One solution for “too casual” employees is to keep several professional lab coats in the department and ask the employee who comes to work in the tank top and shorts to wear one while at work. This minimizes the impact of a bad choice of clothing, as the employee at least looks like they belong at work in the HIM department. Once the employees know the expectations of management and the staff has the opportunity to provide input for issues affecting the department and their job, the dress code should not be a departmental problem. Indivi-duals who continue to dress inappropriately can be individually counseled as necessary using the group’s definition of appropriate dress.

–Rita A. Scichilone, MHSA, RRA, CCS, CCS-P


Malvina M. Cloonan, BBA, CMRT, is supervisor of inpatient care support services at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Wilmington, DE.

Rita A. Scichilone, MHSA, RRA, CCS, CCS-P, is a health information management consultant with Pro-fessional Management Midwest Inc. in Omaha, NE.