Walmart just liberated its employees from khakis

Free at last.
Free at last.
Image: AP Photo/Jim Anderson
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Walmart, the world’s biggest company by revenue, employs one in 10 US retail workers, and one out of every 100 US private-sector employees. That’s a lot of human beings—and a lot of pairs of khakis.

Until recently, all of Walmart’s 1.5 million store employees in the US were required a blue or white collared shirt, black or khaki pants, and close-toed shoes. (Following employee backlash in 2015, Walmart loosened this code, permitting khaki-colored denim for all employees, T-shirts for those who work in the garden department, and jeans for those who do physical labor in the back of the store.)

As of April 14, the drab dress code became slightly more hip. Per an updated employee manual obtained by Bloomberg News, employees in some of Walmart’s 4,700 stores are now allowed to wear shirts of any solid color, and blue jeans or “jeggings” (no matter where they work in the store). According to Bloomberg, Walmart is testing the new dress codes in a small number of US stores in the hopes that more relaxed standards will help attract and retain staff in a tightening labor market.

While the nation’s biggest private employer has long-been vilified for its labor policies, employee satisfaction and retention have been top priorities for Doug McMillon since he became CEO in 2014. In 2015, Walmart pledged to give raises to more than 1 million of its workers. Despite a backlash on Wall Street, the company pressed ahead with its pay plan, boosted Walmart’s starting hourly wage to $11 this February, and distributing bonuses of up to $1,000 to a large percentage of US employees.

Small as Walmart’s dress-code reforms may seem, the impact of clothing choice on employee morale shouldn’t be overlooked. Beyond pure aesthetics (even suburban dads really shouldn’t embrace khakis) restrictive workplace dress codes are inherently paternalistic, and often expensive.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra, when she was running HR for the automaker, saw the connection between dress codes and employees’ sense of empowerment, and edited down GM’s dress code to a simple, two-word appeal: “Dress appropriately.”

Walmart probably won’t go as far as that. While the retailer is relaxing the rules in some cases, the updated manual also includes some new restrictions—facial tattoos, for example, are now banned for any employee hired after April 14—and leather, prints, distressed materials, patches, white stitching, bedazzled clothing, yoga pants, sandals, and Crocs all remain prohibited.