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  • Jordan Strate

Beyond Suits and Ties: Rethinking Workplace Dress Codes

Updated: May 17

Arguably nothing has changed over the last half century more than workplace dress codes. In this time, we’ve moved away from strict, traditional norms toward more flexible and inclusive policies. Dress codes have long been a symbol of professionalism and conformity and are a visual expression of the culture of your organization. However, as the workplace has evolved into a more inclusive space, so to have the norms and expectations regarding what’s appropriate to wear to work. This evolution has put forward the question: does it have to be all business all the time?

A business leader discusses changes to Workplace Dress Code

The Case for Business Formal

Dressing more formally presents a message of credibility, confidence, authority, and a success-oriented attitude, therefore enhancing status, respect, and efficiency. Traditionally, formal attire includes suits and ties for men, and for women business suits with pants or a knee-length skirt and a jacket, the conventional colours being navy and black.

Many employees believe that polishing their image will help keep them employed and foster opportunities for advancement. A 2007 study published in Human Resource Development Quarterly found that “people adopting a formal attire in the workplace believed that they could influence others’ views, achieve greater power and influence, and attain work- related outcomes, such as advancement or compensation increases.”

One place this is decidedly clear is during the hiring process where the interviewee’s dress is a key factor and helps create a favourable first impression. Applicants who are appropriately dressed during interviews are taken more seriously and create a lasting first impression. In one survey, 60 % of executives said interviewees in suits were taken more seriously.

Many studies show a correlation between how we dress and how we act. When employees are dressed in appropriate business attire, they tend to act in appropriate business fashion. Businesses who advocate for formal dress codes also believe that a more casual approach not only leaves the employee’s professionalism open to question but may also jeopardize the reputation of the company.

The Case for Business Casual

Using a business casual dress code is seen as a highly valued employee benefit. Casual dress codes make the work environment more comfortable and less restrictive, while also freeing employees from the costs associated with formal business attire. Business casual dress includes clothing that is more relaxed, but still projects a professional, business-like image. This often includes khakis or black pants with a collared shirt.

Proponents of more relaxed dress codes argue that they create a seamless transition between work and personal life, thus supporting a healthier work-life balance. Allowing employees to express their personal style also boosts morale and creates a more relaxed and open workplace culture.

However, a trend has arisen in which many employees experience dress-down confusion caused by the notorious oxymoron “business casual” which over time causes dress to become too casual as employees continuously test the boundaries of vague dress policies.

As human beings, we are always communicating on a nonverbal level and there is no such thing as a neutral statement. Clothing choices are a huge part of this. When dressed inappropriately the negative impact extends beyond the individual to the entire corporation, giving an impression of unprofessionalism. Ripped jeans, shabby t-shirts, hoodies and scuffed shoes can all leave your clients or customers with an impression of disorganization, unprofessionalism and a general sense of uncaring.

Organizations must also recognize their responsibility in properly informing employees of appropriate business casual attire. Nothing is more uncomfortable that showing up on your first day of work at a new job under or overdressed!

With all this in mind, what’s the best way to implement a dress code so you can avoid having difficult conversations with employees that show up inappropriately dressed?

Before implementing a dress policy it’s important to first note the preferences of your employees to predict the impact more accurately on attitudes and behaviors. If your business already has one in place and you’re looking to make changes it’s important to ease into these new policies gradually as making a major transition too abruptly could have a negative impact on productivity, performance, and budget. Manage this change carefully and ensure that you include the “why”. Employees are much more likely to buy into change if they understand the reason for it!

It's also crucial to have clearly defined guidelines or dos and don’ts about workplace attire. Make sure employees are also aware of the consequences of not adhering to your policy. Is it a disciplinary matter? Will the employee be sent home? Finally, ensure everyone affected by the policy is aware of these expectations. The easiest way is through e-mail, all hands meetings, or an updated employee handbook that everyone signs off on.

As always, be open and responsive to feedback from employees, and ensure you can reasonably explain why dress policies are needed.

There is no one size fits all dress code. There is a delicate balance that exists when trying to promote optimum efficiency and innovation. When creating and implementing a dress code, it’s important to consider your company’s mission statement and values, as well as the culture you wish to build and portrait with you employees and clients. As a visual expression of your company, your dress code policy carries immense significance and deserves attention beyond following the trend.

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