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9.3 Two Ethically Knotted Scenes of Corporate Culture: Clothes and Grooming

Learning Objective

  1. Consider how the organization’s values are reflected in dress codes and grooming codes.

Scenes of Corporate Culture: Dress Codes

Corporate culture is visible on the big issues, including whether a fish-selling business is honest about what consumers are receiving. It also exists, however, in the customs and rules making up quotidian life in the workplace.

One of these quotidian scenes is a dress codeA set of rules—explicit or implicit—distinguishing what garments may and what may not be worn in the workplace., and a glimpse of how one can work comes from AppleInsider, a gossipy online magazine devoted to what’s going on—everything from life at work to product development—inside Apple. The site got its hands on a survey Apple ran of its employees, a version of a corporate culture audit. What Apple was trying to do was get a grip on the corporation’s values as the employees understood them.

According to the study, one notable aspect of Apple culture is the leisurely dress code. “I never dressed nicer than sweat pants. I often came in wearing whatever I slept in the night before and walked around the office barefoot. Nobody cared,” said a customer solutions specialist who works for Apple in Austin, Texas.Kasper Jade and Katie Marshal, “Employees Offer Mixed Reactions to Corporate Life,” AppleInsider, March 30, 2005, accessed May 25, 2011,

The survey presents this as one of the positives of working for Apple. On the other hand, there are people who go to bed at 3 a.m. after a rough party night and still wake up a full hour before leaving for work at 7:45 the next morning because no matter how tired they are, they wouldn’t be caught dead on the street without a shower, some makeup, and the rest. Now, what makes Apple’s culture appealing for many is that both kinds of people can fit in. If you want to dress nicely, great. If grunge is your style, still great. It sounds like this ethical stance in favor of individualism at the core of Apple Incorporated works well.

Listen, though, to the next lines that the same pajama-clad employee wrote in the survey: “There were a lot of communications problems. Micro management to the extreme. I had six different supervisors that did not communicate together and gave me six different answers.”

Well, if part of the corporate culture is to let people be independent to the extreme, dressing however they want, then it’s going to be hard to stop each individual supervisor from supervising in his or her own unique way. This is one of the profound truths about corporate culture: it’s difficult to have part way. If you’re going to raise the values of diversity and individuality, then that’s probably what you’re going to get across the board. If it’s in the way people dress, then it’s probably also in the management style and in the customer relations and in the way people treat each other at work.

Of course no one is going to make the claim that a corporation allowing people to show up for work in pajamas is a scene of great ethical debate. It is, however, a scene of very broad debate. It shows how the values an organization decides to raise up permeate the company; they color everything.

Grooming Codes

Personal hygiene is less easily controlled by the organization than dress because it’s more intimate than clothes and, frequently, more difficult to define. It’s easy to require a necktie; it’s harder to figure out exactly what “well-groomed hair” is.

Some grooming codesA set of rules—explicit or implicit—concerning hygiene and presentation at work. Codes may concern hair, tattoos, fingernails, and similar. aren’t questions of ethics so much as safety or hygiene. For safety reasons, you don’t want a guy who hasn’t had a haircut since the 1960s running the table saw in a lumberyard because his hair may get caught up in the blade with some Hollywood movie results. Similarly with respect to a woman working as a chef in a restaurant, if she refuses to wash her hands or cut her fingernails, the health safety of patrons eating the food she prepares is sufficiently concerning to allow and probably require that the cook be ordered to clean up or be fired.

While health and hygiene issues can normally be resolved by appeals to common reason, more difficult ethical dilemmas arise around the organization’s desire to maintain a uniform and presentable workforce as a way of boosting appeal to consumers. It’s safe to say that business would decline at a McDonald’s if employees were allowed to show up for work unbathed, unshaven, and wearing pajamas. On the other side, however, employees do have lives outside the nine to five, and workplace requirements concerning haircuts and beards obviously wash over to those personal hours.

The conflict between a business’s desire for grooming uniformity and the individuals’ personal freedom to appear in public as they wish centers the case of Brown v. Roberts and Company argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 2008.Bobby T. Brown vs. F. L. Roberts & Co., Inc., accessed May 25, 2011, The journey to a lawsuit began when the owner of a Jiffy Lube station hired a consultant to improve the business, and one recommendation was a grooming policy requiring neatly combed and trimmed hair, along with the prohibition of beards and mustaches. Consumers, the consultant reported, found that cleanliness and uniformity provided an implicit assurance of trustworthiness and good work. The problem for Jiffy Lube employee Bobby Brown was that he practiced a version of Rastafarianism. For more than a decade he’d faithfully subscribed to a religion that didn’t permit him to shave or cut his hair.

After refusing to abide by the new Jiffy Lube grooming guidelines, Brown was removed from his normal routine, which included working the register and greeting customers, and banished to the lower bay where, out of customer sightlines, he performed the dirty work of servicing cars and trucks. He sued to get his old duties back. The Jiffy Lube owner refused to back down. In court, the owner provided statistics showing that cleaning up the customer service personnel actually improved business, and, the owner added, he had the right to control the public image of his company regardless of whether it improved business or not. Brown countered that his grooming was protected by the fact that it was a religious necessity. The grooming requirement, he maintained, didn’t just interfere with his personal life and religion, it completely desecrated both of them. For its part, the high court punted the issue back down to a lower court.

The law in these cases may be hazy, but the ethics will come down to the foundational views shaping the organization’s working culture. Here are three different solutions to Brown versus Jiffy Lube as they emerge from three distinct organizational cultures:

  1. An authoritarian culture defines right and wrong inside a business as just what the highest-ranking individual orders. In this case, the owner is in charge of his shop, and if he determines that all employees must wear short hair, that’s the way the workplace will be. Since there’s no higher code, authority or appeal, people who want to be part of the company will need to accept obedience to the boss.
  2. A consequentialist, utilitarian outlook will produce a workplace culture that most highly values the collective welfare of all those involved. The issue is no longer boss versus employee; it’s what’s best for everyone. If this mentality controls the Jiffy Lube franchise, someone may propose that Brown bundle his hair up underneath a cap or agree to work only limited hours up front at times when visits from walk-ins and new clients are minimal. That way the business can prosper (possibly triggering wage increases for all employees), while Brown’s inconvenience is minimized.
  3. An ethics of care produces an organizational culture distinct from the previous two. Instead of seeing the workplace as controlled by an owner, and instead of seeing it as a scene of compromise in the name of the general welfare, a Jiffy Lube structured by care will conceive of the workforce as something near a family. In this case, the ethical justification for action will always trace back to the question about whether the act will strengthen and nurture the bonds of all those involved in working together. In the case of Jiffy Lube, this guideline will probably lead to a decision to allow Brown to return to his customary role. It may be that some business will be lost, but if that’s the cost of maintaining the harmony of the work unit as a unit, then the cost will be paid. Of course the owner may still appeal to Brown to cut his hair and shave, but just as members of a family learn to respect (or at least tolerate) the idiosyncrasies and uniqueness of each member, so too a business culture governed by care will ultimately be more interested in preserving Brown’s ties to the group than reforming his character, habits, and presentation.

Conclusion. Some businesses have an interest in controlling the way employees look. The degree to which they’ll control appearances depends on the ethical stance defining their internal values and culture.

Key Takeaways

  • An organization’s fundamental values show through in codes regulating dress and grooming.
  • The implications of these particular codes and the values beneath them stretch broadly through the organization.

Review Questions

  1. What might a dress code tell you about an organization’s larger culture?
  2. Why might a business install a grooming code?
  3. Why might a utilitarian vision of the workplace and its values lead to an only partially enforced grooming code?