This is an article about two giant American companies -- American Airlines and GM -- that apparently have almost the exact same two-word dress code.

If you don't want to read too deeply, here are the two words: "Dress appropriately."

(I almost forgot: Goldman Sachs uses something very similar now -- although they're too verbose to cut it down to just two words.)

As you can imagine, there's a bit more to the story. 

Because as we've found out in the past couple of days, having a simple, straightforward, open-to-interpretation dress code policy can be a double-edged sword.

It can be the kind of thing that empowers your employees.

Or it can empower subjective biases -- and accomplish the exact opposite of what you hope it will do for your company.

2 words at American Airlines

Meet Tisha Rowe, a doctor and entrepreneur who flew on American Airlines from Jamaica to Miami en route to Houston on June 30.

In a series of viral tweets, Rowe said an American Airlines flight attendant stopped her and told her that her clothing was inappropriate. 

She was forced to get off the plane with her eight-year-old son, and was only allowed back on with an airline blanket draped over her body. She felt embarrassed and humiliated.

On the American Airlines website, the passenger dress code reads:

"Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren't allowed."

Obviously, you can be your own judge of what's appropriate, but Rowe posted a photo of her outfit.

She looks to me anyway like someone who was returning from a vacation in Jamaica. No big deal -- a one-piece romper that basically adds up to shorts and a top.

Rowe, who is black, said afterward that she believed she was singled out because of her race and size.

"I have a very curvaceous body, and I put my body in bold colors, so you're going to see it. But it's not vulgar. It's not inappropriate. It's not bad, you know? If you put someone who's a size 2 in the exact same outfit next to me, no one would be bothered," she told Business Insider.

2 words at GM

The GM story is a bit nicer. Mary Barra, who is currently the CEO of GM but previously was the company's vice president of global human resources, pared the company's 10-page dress code down to just two words in 2009.

You guessed it: "Dress appropriately." 

Her rationale was that having a highly technical dress code suggested that the company couldn't count on managers to figure out the right thing and do it themselves.

"The big 'a-ha' was that you need to make sure your managers are empowered, because if they can't handle 'dress appropriately,'" she said in an interview last year, "what other judgment decisions are they not making?"

We Americans don't like bureaucracy. We like the idea that we can use common sense to solve problems quickly.

But, sometimes stripping things down means stripping them of all the nuance and direction. 

I think the solution here isn't what it appears to be at first. It might work out just fine for GM to have a two-word dress code for employees.

If you can't trust your employees and their managers to come up with a reasonable understanding of "appropriately," then you probably have bigger problems.

'Don't embarrass us'

At American Airlines however, we're talking about employees enforcing a policy against paying customers. Much, much trickier. 

And it makes me think perhaps some employees need two or three more words in the policy.

"Practice discretion," perhaps, or "use good judgment." Or maybe something even more simple: "Don't embarrass us." 

I asked American Airlines for their side of the story, and a spokeswoman, Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman, emailed me the following statement: 

"We were concerned about Dr. Rowe's comments, and reached out to her and our team at the Kingston (Jamaica) airport to gather more information about what occurred.

We apologize to Dr. Rowe and her son for their experience, and have fully refunded their travel.  We are proud to serve customers of all backgrounds and are committed to providing a positive, safe travel experience for everyone who flies with us."

Published on: Jul 10, 2019
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