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Should Companies Relax Their Dress Codes?

Two experts debate the issue.

 YesAllowing people to wear what they want leads to better engagement. Maddie Grant, WorkXO.


One of the distinguishing characteristics of today’s digital age is the shift in power away from centralized institutions and toward individuals. Social media has been fueling this movement for more than a decade as more of us can now create or find our own entertainment, news and even startup funding (through Kickstarter, for example). We also have considerably more power than we did in previous eras to shape our own work experiences—including what we choose to wear.

I like it. It’s not going away, folks. And here’s what it means:

Authenticity and individual expression (hallmarks of social media) are becoming more important at work. This is where dress codes get in the way. I understand the desire to exude professionalism, but when you let a handful of people at the top decide what that looks like on behalf of all the individuals in an organization, the result is reduced employee engagement. It’s something I hear complaints about all the time, and loosening the dress code is an easy way to make a tangible difference.

Organizations will evolve based on employees’ needs. In research that Jamie Notter and I did for our recent book, When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business (IdeaPress Publishing, 2015), we identified four internal business capacities that will shape the future of business, and one of them is to become more digital. Doing so goes far beyond just adopting new technology; instead, it’s about developing what we call a “digital mindset” and designing the business around the needs of employees rather than the needs of management. I know this may be a tough one to swallow (for management, anyway), but look at our digital world: The user is king. If you’re designing software, it must work for the user, be customizable and undergo continuous innovation. We need organizations to do the same, and “users” go beyond customers to include employees. Allowing workers to wear what they want is consistent with this mindset.

Focus on employees, raise engagement. At the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH), a small nonprofit in Chicago with a digital mindset, the dress code is all of two words: “No nudity.” That’s not a joke. That’s its actual dress code.

The CEO was thrilled to point out that his director of finance came to work one day wearing shorts and a Blackhawks jersey. And ASSH didn’t stop with dress code. It also designed its office space in a way that lets individuals work in a location that’s best for them (Wi-Fi is available on the roof), and it customizes everyone’s job description yearly. I know that sounds like a lot of work, but here’s what the company gets in return: unbelievable engagement. Employees can’t imagine working anywhere else, and when a job opens up, ASSH gets applicants from the coolest tech companies in Chicago. The organization has had more success than its competitors. Its commitment to letting individuals be themselves is integral to that, so it very intentionally implemented its two-word dress code. That dress code unlocks the engagement that enables the organization’s success.

Ultimately, what’s more important—what the boss thinks exudes professionalism or the actual success of the enterprise?

Maddie Grant is a founding partner at WorkXO, a consulting company that focuses on creating strong workplace cultures, with offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C. She has written several books.

NoFormal business attire boosts confidence and Tess C. Taylor, SHRM-CP, HR Knows.performance.

There was a time when every workplace included button-down shirts, business suits, smart accessories and dress shoes so shiny you could see your reflection in them. Unfortunately, times have changed and it seems that everywhere you go, people are dressed like they just rolled out of bed.

Call me old-school, but here are some reasons workplace rules about attire should not be relaxed:

Corporate dress codes establish the company brand. Every encounter with your company’s employees gives others a glimpse of your corporate brand. Organizations must clearly establish rules that set standards of professional appearance. Otherwise, it can be confusing as to what kind of image the company has. A policy requiring formal dress establishes a strong brand to the rest of the world. However, be mindful that it’s common for companies to relax clothing requirements for back-office employees, while sales and management personnel must don more-formal attire as the “face” of the company.

Clothing has a strong influence on work performance. An article by a team of researchers from California State University-Northridge and Columbia University (Michael L. Slepian, Simon N. Ferber, Joshua M. Gold and Abraham M. Rutchick) found that formal business attire enhances employees’ abstract cognitive processing. It also may improve the way they are seen by others and the way workers view themselves, thereby elevating their confidence and performance.

Formal dress codes create stronger work cultures. Lack of a comprehensive policy on attire or an overly casual one can break down an organization’s established culture. Dress codes bring people and teams together because everyone is operating at the same level of professionalism.

Dress codes help employees establish consistent work practices. A policy requiring formal work clothing supports career growth and positive work practices. A study conducted by professor Dennis Tootelian at California State University revealed that today’s workers don’t understand the concept of “business casual.” In fact, 47 percent of the U.S. population cannot define that term and “nearly one in three Americans find it harder to know what’s acceptable to wear to the office as compared to ten years ago,” according to the study. If a company merely states that it has a relaxed dress code, it’s doing its employees a major disservice because they cannot distinguish between casual, business casual or other business clothing, terms that can mean vastly different things to different people.

Employees don’t mind dress codes as much as you might think. A survey of 4,600 individuals found that nearly one-quarter believe their company rules about attire are too lenient. Many recalled incidents of co-workers donning low-cut tops, ripped-up jeans and sandals that they thought were inappropriate for any work setting. Some respondents said they had wanted to rat out a co-worker to HR but felt they couldn’t, given that the company’s policy allowed casual attire.

In many cases, employees who have pride in their own performance and in the goals of the company will likely be the first to admit that dress code policies need some tightening up.

Tess C. Taylor, SHRM-CP, is the founder of HR Knows, a corporate content, consulting and career coaching firm in Binghamton, N.Y., and the founder and managing editor of the blog The HR Writer.


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