My employer (hospital ER) seems to have an outdated dress code. ER staff are expected to cover all their tattoos with long sleeves, and to maintain their hair in "conventional" colors. This hospital is located in a large, liberal city. It's also in the 'hood, if you know what I mean, and tattoos or blue hair are commonplace.
While I, myself, don't have body ink, and my hair is now a graying shadow of its former self, I think the focus on tattoos and hair color has become out of hand. We almost lost one of our best RNs because of management harassment over her lavender hair, and there is a definite loss of per diem and temporary staff, who don't want to wear long sleeves and can find plenty of work elsewhere.
What should my colleagues do? The dress code seems entirely out of date for the times we live in, and whether or not I agree or practice it myself, shouldn't the dress code reflect the times we live in? Forcing a professional nurse to wear long sleeves seems like a mandate from another century, when nurses were required to be plain and conservative.
Is this something HR could handle, perhaps by updating the twenty-five-year-old dress code?
Dress Codes Do Not Dictate Skill
You know, 6 years ago, I would have been on the employer's side. Tattoos should not be visible. Hair color needs to be a natural color, and hairstyles should not be extreme. Then something happened—I moved across the ocean to Switzerland.
My son's kindergarten had 3 teachers. One dressed conservatively. One had tattoos and piercings. One had wild and bright and ever-changing hair colors—red, blue, purple. The latter one was my friend's Kindergarten teacher 25 years ago, so at minimum this woman is in her late 40s, but is probably older. And you know what? They were all awesome teachers and the kids all loved them.
The other thing I noticed is the military. Military service is compulsory for men here. But, they don't prohibit piercings and wild hair. Now, I admit that the Swiss military doesn't fight like the Americans do, but it is a military and it operates with very casual hair and piercing policies. The uniforms are snazzy, though.
Time for a Change
My point is, times have changed and it's time for an update. The problem is the people who do that type of updating tend to be, well, people like I was 6 years ago. The dress code has always been conservative because, by golly, we're a hospital and we're medical professionals and people don't trust a nurse with purple hair! There is something to be said for that—opinions do take a while to change, and hospitals tend to have a lot of older people as patients.
Steps To Changing Your Company's Dress Code
1. Look at your competitors.
What do other hospitals do about tattoos and extreme hairstyles? You said these rules are making it difficult to keep staff, so they must be landing places that allow visible tattoos or blue hair. If you can get a copy of their dress codes (many company websites post such information), do so.
2. Decide your priorities.
What's most important? Losing the long sleeves? Dyeing your hair? Don't go for the whole “throw the dress code out!” at once. Try to get one thing changed. Pick the one with the biggest staff impact.
3. Gather your data.
Have people really quit because of the dress code? Who? If you can make a list, that's great. Get that list ready and be prepared to present it.
Say something like this, “As you know, in the past year, we've lost five valued staff members to hospitals with relaxed dress codes. They were great employees who performed consistently. I'm concerned that if we don't change our dress code to match our competitors, we'll continue to lose staff.
4. Be rational.
Don't go in and say, “The hospital across town allows visible tattoos, so you should allow me to show this naked lady on my arm!” No, that will not go over well. Use some language from other policies that will show a willingness to be reasonable.
For instance, here's a tattoo policy from the University of Wisconsin Medical Center: “Tattoos with slogans, graphics, sayings or offensive wording should be covered (e.g., long sleeve shirt, gloves, etc.). Managers also have the discretion to require that an employee cover any tattoo(s) or combination of tattoos that could be considered offensive.”
5. Be prepared to fail round one.
Things like this take time. Administrators don't like to make big changes because they are scary. What happens when grandma breaks her hip and complains that she never saw a nurse because she assumed the woman with tattoos was just an assistant? They worry about these things, and rightfully so. You need to give them time to come to grips with the idea that loosening the dress code death grip is the right thing to do.
In the meantime, don't push the envelope. You come across as a trouble maker if they have to constantly remind you to wear long sleeves or dye your hair brown. You may be tempted to prove that you are right by being fabulous and tattooed, but it's better to just prove you are fabulous and and let their respect for you grow.
My bet is that you'll start to see changes like this in the not too distant future. If you approach it the right way, the future could be now.