Dress Code: Spell It Out

Photo by Josh KeownThere is something noticeable about the staff’s look at Cocco’s Pizza in Primos, Pennsylvania, — expression of individuality and brand awareness. Employees sport graphic T-shirts with the pizzeria’s name and logo. Owner Michael Cocco says his dress code reflects his crew’s personalities.

Everyone is wearing something just a little different from one another. They can select from new and retro designed T-shirts. With 35 years of designs, they have a lot of options. Cocco works with a neighboring printing company to keep the shop’s designs on file. If someone doesn’t find one they like, Cocco says, they are welcome to buy their own style tops and he’ll have the print shop screen print on them.

“They are able to express how they want their shirts to look,” Cocco says. “I like the individuality of our shirts. It makes us a little different.”

It may appear like the pizzeria doesn’t have much of a dress code, but at closer examination there’s method to Cocco’s casual presentation. The dress code standards are outlined in its employee handbook, though he always verbally reinforces his expectations.

Cocco supplies the shirts — the more days they work, the more shirts he gives. If employees want extra, he charges $5. There is a $10 replacement penalty if employees forget their shirts.

Cocco isn’t too strict about the rest of his employees’ attire. He doesn’t allow sweat pants or gym shorts. There has been confusion on what constitutes sweats or gym shorts. In those instances, he says he makes the final decision. He doesn’t mind a few holes in the jeans, but he has sent people home for wearing pants with an overabundance of holes.

“They just have to use common sense,” Cocco says. “We really try to set a family atmosphere. Customers watch what you wear.”

Having your dress code spelled out in writing, formally stating specific uniform standards — no matter how loose — and courses of action for failures to comply with requirements, is good business.

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After all, employees’ appearance reflects a restaurant’s brand. Choosing not to have a set dress code creates confusion, says human resources expert and trainer Roberta Matuson. “You just have to be very specific as far as what does a clean, neat attire look like? The more you can do to eliminate people from having to make those decisions themselves the better.”

Haley’s Pizzeria in Litchfield, New Hampshire, also has a loose dress code. In fact, staff members simply wear jeans and t-shirts. The key, says owner Mike DeMarco, is outlining what is not acceptable — no sleeveless shirts, no low-cut or sagging pants, nothing vulgar or explicit on t-shirts, nothing that shows cleavage or posterior and no Yoga pants or jeans. DeMarco gives each employee a Haley’s T-shirt when they are hired, but it is not a required piece of uniform.

Having a uniform accessible and clean can be stressful for employees, DeMarco says. “I would rather them put their energy into the product and the customers,” he explains.

While Cocco’s and Haley’s take a casual approach to dress codes, Mama’s Famous Pizza & Heros in Tucson, Arizona, and Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano & Bar in Naples, Florida, have stricter requirements.

Mama’s four locations have a dress code, requiring employees to wear kakis or white pants, a brown Mama’s shirt, green apron and hat. Manager Liz Biocca says, “it’s the image that we want them to present and staff appearance should be consistent.” The restaurant supplies one of each, costing the restaurant under $10 per piece. But if the uniform gets stained or torn, Mama’s will replace it free.

Common violations of Mama’s dress codes are forgotten hats and shirts that are not tucked in. There’s a warning process when the policy is violated, Biocca says.

Kelly Musico says Aldo’s goes for a classy, sophisticated look — black button down shirt, black pants, black bistro apron and black non-slip shoes. The uniforms, she says, also make staff easily identifiable to customers, especially when Aldo’s caters off-site.

Aldo’s dress code is always enforced and gives employees multiple chances. “First offense, we will issue a loaner; second offense, employee will get sent home; third offense, employee will receive a written violation; and fourth offense, termination,” Musico says.

It is important to set reasonable standards, Matuson says. Expecting a white shirt to stay clean in an environment filled with red sauce is not going to be effective. Nor is supplying a style of uniform that does not fit everyone. If skirts are a piece of the uniform, she suggests also offering pants as an option. Be flexible.

Success of a dress code, Matuson says, comes down to communicating what’s in it for the staff. “You have to appeal to people’s self interest,” she says.

Also, make sure you and your managers are modeling the attire policy, Matuson says. It difficult to get employees to adhere to the rules when they see management disregard them.

Whether your style is extreme casual or formal, let your employees know how you expect them to dress for work. It is your image that they are representing.

Tips for Success

Dress codes are not complete without appearance standards. Many requirements, like pulling hair back in a ponytail or a hairnet, come down to local health code mandates. Some things like not displaying visible tattoos are image representation.

Where your dress code can get into legal hot water is if it violates federal and state employee discrimination laws. The rules are in place to protect employees from “unfair treatment because of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 and older), disability or genetic information,” enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Make certain that the policy you’ve set into place doesn’t leave you vulnerable to lawsuits. Run your dress code standards by your attorney.

Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.