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Pants on the Ground::The Joys of Managing an Adult Dress Code

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2011-01-09
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Every season of American Idol comes with its own set of surprises, and this year is no exception.  “General” Larry Platt of Atlanta added the catchphrase “pants on the ground” to the American lexicon with his homemade ditty to drooping drawers. While his somewhat tongue-in-cheek composition focused on a particular dress style of the young, communications center managers can experience similar displays every day. If you are lucky enough to supervise a uniformed facility, then the remainder of this column should serve as a reason to count your blessings. If, like the rest of us, you don’t – then read on.

One of the more necessary but complicated tasks assigned to anyone is the management of an adult dress code. Since the definition of both “adult” and “fashion sense” are often in the eye of the beholder, in the words of the general we must on some occasions deal with employees who are “lookin’ like a fool.” Now, if their pants were truly on the ground it would be an easy call, but that normally isn’t the case. Typically we see clashes between personal taste and agency standards that bring the issue to a head.

We all have the right to individual expression, and for myself I have no problem with folks who want to look “Goth” or “counter-culture,” or any other way for that matter.  While some departments frown on tattoos and piercings, if it doesn’t impact job performance, why should we care? However, as managers, we are responsible for maintaining a safe and non-threatening work environment.  Here, I believe, you can reasonably argue against open toed shoes or ones that might cause a tripping hazard. Further, you can also address clothing that contains inflammatory racial, religious, or sexual language. The potential for public contact aside, the display of such statements in any workplace just isn’t right.  And, that display refers to apparel, body art, and buttons or pins.

This takes us to the most complicated set of restrictions which deal with garments that might be too provocative for a professional office environment.  Unfortunately, the difference between smart and sexy is often open to interpretation.  Career addressed the topic and came up with some surprising – and some not so surprising observations. According to the site, “Extremely high heels are too sexy for the workplace -- not to mention impractical.” Frankly, I hadn’t given that much thought, as most telecommunicators I know prefer something more comfortable, but it does make sense. Their comments on cleavage were even more to the point.  “There are very few legitimate jobs where showing off your chest is a good career move,” they observed. Out of fairness, it should also be noted that a list of male fashion faux pas (such as tank tops) was also included. Tank tops at work? Eww.

In 1997, 9-1-1 Magazine ran a feature entitled, “DISPATCHER UNIFORMITY - To Wear or Not To Wear”, that detailed many of the discussions still being carried on today.  This was revisited in 2007 by an article in the APCO Public Safety Magazine called “Dress for Success: Dress Codes & Uniform Policies.” Since these may be difficult to secure, with no apologies whatsoever to Jeff Foxworthy, I present to you a handy pocket guide for employee self-review entitled “You Might Be Underdressed.”

  • If you’re wearing the same shoes and jeans that you wore to mow the lawn, you might be underdressed.
  • If your skirt is so short people wouldn’t see it if you wore a belt, you might be underdressed.
  • If your shirt contains more grease than the guys who work at Jiffy Lube, you might be underdressed.
  • If you purchased your footwear at Fred’s House of Flip-flops, you might be underdressed.
  • If your t-shirt advertises beer, drugs, or coed naked anything, you might be underdressed.
  • If your outfit was rejected by Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga as being, “too revealing,” you might be underdressed.
  • If your clothing looks like the “before” pictures in laundry detergent ads, you might be underdressed.
  • If you picked your outfit out on, you might be underdressed.

Personal grooming standards are often thrown in to dress code regulations, and can also be a source of friction. This becomes a very hot button in some centers, although lack of direct public contact and job functions have to be weighed. A beard, for example, may prevent a firefighter from securing his face piece, but a beard probably doesn’t impede the use of a headset unless you play for ZZTop.  Care must also be taken with regard to clothing and or grooming related to religious affiliation. I’d check with the personnel department before I went anywhere with those cases.

But most of all, remember that people will be people. I am always amazed at the fact that my staff, while vehemently opposed to uniforms, make major investments in apparel displaying our logo.  Go figure? Perhaps we can attribute this to the desire for self-expression, which by itself is not a bad thing. However, in cases where self-expression interferes with the ability to perform or causes discomfort to others we have a duty to act. Unfortunately, there is no single simple solution. Adult Geranimals anyone?

Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.


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