In 1992, when Levi Strauss mailed 25,000 copies of “A Guide to Casual Businesswear” to HR departments across the country, they claimed they were merely reacting to a growing trend (and promoting their Dockers brand). Throughout the 90s, Casual Friday grew until “business casual” became the norm in many workplaces, replacing the once-standard suits and ties. By 2012, when Mark Zuckerberg wore a hoodie to announce Facebook’s IPO, companies were wondering if they should loosen dress codes again, tighten them back up or do away with them entirely.
As with many workplace trends, we can see this one starting in Silicon Valley. With start-up and tech CEOs dressing more like Zuckerberg than James Bond and Google’s four-word dress code, proponents of casual dress claim that formal attire stifles creativity and letting employees express their personal style is good for morale and boosts productivity.
But others insist that formal attire, or at least carefully-defined “business casual,” is necessary for high productivity and could enhance cognitive processing. For many companies, especially in industries like law or finance, dressing up sends a message that the employee, and therefore the company, is professional and serious about their work—and customers respond to that.
A study from Master’s College that examined whether supervisors experienced in decline in employees’ performance after adopting a casual dress code found that casual dress had “equally positive and negative effects.”
This means that companies need to decide for themselves what clothing is appropriate and inappropriate in the workplace.
The Case for Dress Codes
Employees like to have clear expectations. They don’t appreciate seeing colleagues come to work wearing skimpy, dirty, or offensive clothing. For many, these inappropriate outfits are distracting in the office.
A dress code can help establish a brand identity for your company, especially when employees interact with customers or clients. The prevailing attitude in many industries is that dressing professionally helps to build trust with customers.
While the research is mixed, many still believe that dressing “up” for work increases productivity and helps people get into a more professional, work-oriented mindset.
Despite tech companies claiming that they value the quality of work over an employee’s appearance or style, the reality is that people—co-workers, customers and the general public—make judgments about professionalism, competence and reliability based on appearances.
In Favor of Hoodies and Sneakers
Employees may like expectations, but they dislike dress codes. These, more than other corporate policies, send a message that employers don’t trust their employees to use common sense.
It can be challenging to avoid charges of discrimination, since business can’t restrict clothing worn for religious purposes. Also, even if they’re written in a gender-neutral format, most items in a typical dress code policy are aimed at things women wear: they dictate the length of skirts and dresses, blouses’ necklines, sleeveless tops, jewelry and sandals, while men are simply told to “wear collared shirts” and keep their hair groomed.
Casual clothing tends to be less expensive and thus, less of a cost burden on employees. They can wear their “normal” clothes to the office and not, essentially, purchase two wardrobes.
You risk losing out on good hires who don’t want to conform to a restrictive dress code. In general, Millennials tend to oppose strict dress codes and are drawn to more casual workplaces (79% think they should be allowed to wear jeans to work at least sometimes).
Ditching dress codes helps employees get more creative. You can even promote “theme” days to encourage more fun and creativity, like VerticalResponse does.
If you give employees the freedom to dress however they feel, it will make them more productive or creative. Those who prefer dressing sharp at the office can do so, and those who need to be comfortable to do their best work can show up in their favorite hoodie. Employees can also be more empowered to “dress for the job they want.” Without an explicit dress code, how employees choose to dress may signal their career ambitions. Someone who does great work but dresses casually may be happy in his current role, while a co-worker who dresses more formally may be eager for leadership and management opportunities.
Changing the Dress Code
All that said, as dress codes are getting more and more relaxed, many companies still feel the need to have some sort of policy or guidelines covering what employees should wear at work.
Here are some questions to think about when you’re updating or changing your dress code:
How should customer-facing employees dress?
It is okay to have different standards for different departments. You may want employees who interact with customers and clients to dress more sharply, while the IT department can stroll in wearing jeans all week. When considering the customer-facing employees, however, think about the image you want to portray as a company and what customers expect from your company and industry. Do you want to establish trust and inspire confidence, or build rapport and show creativity? It’s unlikely bank tellers or lawyers will start dressing down in the near future, but a marketing agency may want their employees to look relaxed and trendy, even when meeting with clients.
What’s really necessary?
Look at what your employees are already wearing. If there aren’t any egregious offenses (a body-con dress and gladiator sandals, a torn concert tee and gym shorts), you might not need to implement or update your dress code at all. If there are just a couple people who habitually dress inappropriately, perhaps that can be handled with a gentle explanation and suggestions for better workplace attire instead of issuing a company-wide policy.
What to do about tattoos and piercings?
While negative connotations about tattoos still exist, and most employers and adults think tattoos and piercings are inappropriate in the workplace, the number of adults who have at least one tattoo is growing. Some companies (PetSmart, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Walgreens) allow visible tattoos. Starbucks considered allowing them. In most industries, however, it’s going to take a lot longer before tattoos and piercings (along with creative hair colors and styles) are seen as normal.
How will people react?
Even if the new dress code won’t force anyone to change his or her style, being told that certain things are “forbidden” when they weren’t before could cause backlash.
How can we best communicate and enforce the dress code?
If you do feel you need to go ahead with the new policy, get input and buy-in from managers—it’ll be easier to enforce the dress code if they’re setting good examples. Communicate clearly what’s in the new policy and why you’re making it.
And if you want to loosen or do away with your dress code? You’ll want to make sure employees know that expectations and standards still exist, and empower managers to handle issues if they arise.
What employees wear to work—and how much of that is dictated by the employer—is an indicator of a company’s culture. Determining a dress code should happen right alongside other conversations about branding and culture. And it’s important to put aside personal preferences of the HR department or C-suite and make the decisions based on what’s best for the company’s productivity, culture and morale, along with expectations and trends in your industry.