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Market forces are chipping away at retail dress policies

November 9, 2015

By Joe DeSantis, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

For office graybeards who still can’t understand why everyone doesn’t wear suits to work, it must be a comfort to walk into their local retailers and see all the workers smartly turned out in matching ensembles that sport the company’s colors and logo. The barbarians may be at the gate, they fear, but at least they haven’t broken through yet.

But now Jimmy John’s sandwich chain has wedged a pry bar in the jamb and started to twist and bend and pull on the lock, and the latch on the gate is barely holding. Last week the chain announced in an internal memo that store employees could wear tattoos that showed. With restrictions, of course. Huffington Post quoted the memo that said in part, “A little ink is OK, as long as it’s tasteful and not on the face or throat . . . No sex, drugs or profanity please. If your mom wouldn’t approve, better cover ‘em up.” In the company’s previous policy tattoos were not allowed to show, period.

Other retailers including PetSmart and Starbucks, and even the U.S. Army, have relaxed their tattoo policies.

Jimmy John’s is one of the retailers that had become notorious for their very strict store dress codes. Its policy has included no high-top sneakers, no dress shoes that don’t have black or brown soles, and no jeans with “excessive stitching” on the rear. It also required strictly-defined colors for khaki pants, and its policy guidebook even showed photographs of khakis of different colors, with big red “Xs” on the ones that were either too light or too dark. 

Now the company has loosened all of those restrictions, not just the tattoo policy. “Light or dark” trousers, including denim, are now allowed, as are high-top shoes and shoe soles of any color.

Even some of Jimmy John’s franchisees, who might be expected to be enthusiastic enforcers of a strict uniform dress code, have complained about the policy. One stated publicly that it was “insanely restrictive.” And they have welcomed the changes.

Part of Jimmy John’s problem was that it was requiring minimum- or near minimum-wage employees to spend their own money on significant components of their work ensembles, like trousers and shoes. And their bosses, the franchise owners, were sympathetic. Two franchisees told HuffPost that they had purchased clothes for their own employees to help them meet the requirements. On the other hand, it was in their best interest to do that anyway; if store inspectors from corporate were to pop in unannounced and see employees out of uniform, it would reflect on the franchisees’ rating and perhaps lower their chances of opening additional stores.

But the real issue is that demographics and market forces, with the implied support of a distant and unspoken but potentially real threat of unionization, itself supported by some important recent decisions on “protected concerted activity” by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), are putting pressure on companies with strict dress codes to relax those codes.

First of all, the economy is booming and labor markets are tight; potential employees of retailers are mostly Millennials, who as a group are bigger than Gen Xers, bigger than Baby Boomers, and bigger than the remnant of Veterans still in the workforce. Millennials, whether they know it or not, have the power to vote with their feet—i.e., to walk away from a retail job (or more likely, a boss) they don’t like and get a similar job in the next store over in the mall. Maybe even more significant than the sheer number of Millennials is that the oldest members of that age group are now in their 30s and stepping into  management positions themselves. In other words, more of the people who mostly share the same tastes in clothing and other cultural accoutrements as these workers are positioned to make decisions on dress policies and other issues that affect their lives at work.

Lastly, corporate heads of retail companies are surely aware of the potential, no matter how distant at this time, for organized labor to get firmly established in their chains. It was probably significant that the website Coworker.org facilitated a petition that was signed by 9,000 people, including 4,600 who identified as Jimmy John’s employees, calling for less restrictive worker rules. A year ago Starbucks relaxed its own tattoo policy in the wake of a similar petition. Perhaps the petitions were words to the wise.

Maybe even the graybeards will realize that when the barbarians do break through the gate, they really won’t be barbarians at all.

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