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updated 6/20/2011 8:21:53 AM ET 2011-06-20T12:21:53

It's an uncomfortable summertime moment that many small business owners face: A female staffer shows up for work in the shortest of shorts. Or a male staffer arrives wearing a tank top. And they work in full view of customers or clients.

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Dress code problems aren't confined to the summer months. But they do tend to be more frequent than in colder months when everyone is covering up. Employers who don't like a lot of skin showing need to create a dress code, and do it now.

Chances are, most of your staffers do have a sense of how they should dress for work. But having a dress code will help you avoid problems or to resolve them easily.

Dress codes are legal
Your staffer in a skimpy outfit may protest when you say that's inappropriate dress for work. But you have the law on your side.

Employers are allowed to require employees to wear certain kinds of clothes, and to ban other types from the workplace. Consider that uniforms are required in some jobs. And that some clothes can be forbidden because of safety issues.

But the boss is also allowed to determine what kind of atmosphere the company is trying to project, and to require employees to conform with it.

The law does require you to create a dress code that is, to use a legalism, gender-neutral. That means that you're telling both sexes to dress appropriately. And the law does require that you don't discriminate against someone's religious beliefs -- for example, by banning turbans or dreadlocks that are worn for religious reasons.

What kind of atmosphere do you want?
The biggest concern that most business owners have when it comes to how staffers dress is the impression that customers have of the company. So many won't want a receptionist to have exposed bra straps and a very short skirt. Or a sales associate in a T-shirt.

Some companies will have different standards that depend on whether an employee meets with customers, says Rick Gibbs, a senior human resources specialist with Insperity, a Houston-based HR provider. So someone who does meet customers at a manufacturing firm may be in business casual clothes. Someone in the warehouse may be in jeans and a polo shirt. And someone on the assembly line may be wearing construction-type clothes. You'll want to spell that out in your dress code.

But even if your staffers don't meet with customers, you can still require that they dress to meet your standards. But be careful -- you may not like a staffer's style, but as long as they are wearing appropriate clothes for your workplace, you can't ban their wardrobe choices.

What to put in the dress code
It's a good idea to explain at the start of the dress code why you're creating one. "Regardless of what we might think, there is an impression that's created by certain ways of dressing that might have an impact on the business," is Gibbs' suggestion.

You should also state any safety concerns you have.

Gibbs recommends listing what isn't acceptable. For example, tank tops, shirts without collars, see-through fabrics, ripped or dirty jeans.

You should use specifics. If you ban skirts that are too short, what constitutes too short? You need to provide the number of inches above the knee where a skirt's hem must fall.

Be sure you list clothes typically worn by men, and those that are worn by women. Not doing that can put you at risk of a discrimination suit.

Gibbs warns against building a dress code around one staffer. Take a step back and think about how you want everyone to dress.

It's a good idea to have either a human resources expert or a labor lawyer look over your dress code.

Enforcing the dress code
Gibbs says employers should speak privately to staffers who are dressing inappropriately and remind them about the dress code and the reasons for it. He says the policy should also indicate that staffers who violate it will be asked to change what they wear. If they resist, you probably want to start treating this as a performance and disciplinary issue.

But be careful if you're dealing with a young person who has never had a job before. Don't assume that someone has sat your staffer down and given some advice about dressing properly for work.

Gibbs suggests having a conversation that lets the young staffer know, "we're looking for you to be successful." And discuss with them what proper workplace clothing is.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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