Supermarket chain Morrisons was in the news last week for seeking to discipline a store worker for wearing a poppy pin and charity wristband.
Was this just an over-zealous local manager? No. They were enforcing the corporate uniform policy. After two days, Morrisons backed down (a great press statement, by the way) and amended its policy, bringing it into line with Tesco and Asda.
Remember BA worker Nadia Eweida, who won her case at the European Court of Human Rights to wear openly a necklace and crucifix. She won on the grounds that her religious rights had precedence over BA's wish to project a certain corporate image. By then, BA had already overturned its policy.
Over the past couple of years, organisations ranging from Poundland to the Bodycare toiletries chain, to Manchester's Macdonald Hotel, have all had to change their dress codes after being lambasted in the media for banning staff from wearing poppies.
As HMV staggered towards administration in autumn 2012, it was criticised for finding time to change its 'appearance policy' and require staff to cover up 'extreme body art'. Abercrombie & Fitch is sued regularly over its employment practices and dress codes. The list goes on.
Should dress codes matter that much to internal and external communication teams?
Yes, and not just because of possible negative media attention about over-rigid policy interpretations. Crucifixes, hijabs, poppies, wristbands, ribbons and moustaches grown in November are part of our individual and community culture and identity. Such disputes, and indeed any policies that feel out of date in today's workplace, at best test and at worst undermine the employer/employee relationship.
So it's about the broader comms agenda and the narrative of the organisation with which employees spend a large part of their lives.
So that's the dress code issue. Now when was the last time you read through all the other corporate policies that exist and might either cause reputational trouble or better serve internal cultural cohesion?
- Comms teams should - and indeed are often the only people in an organisation able to because of their externally facing role - act as advisers, not just agents of their organisations.
- When you observe an organisation going through crisis, you read around the issue and look to incorporate learnings. But when you read of BA's crucifix problem in 2006, did you check your own corporate dress code?
- Comms teams should assert how organisations can strengthen brand values and corporate reputation by assimilating expressions of culture and identity.