This article was updated on Aug. 27, 2018.
Workplace dress codes and expectations for dress and appearance have evolved over the years. Dress codes can tell a story to customers about the image and professionalism the organization wants to portray. A dress code also tells a story about organizational culture. Having a dress code, or the absence of a dress code, can be a strong reflection of corporate culture.
How Dress Codes Have Evolved With the Times
Of course, organizations want to have their employees dress in a way that reflects their culture and best connects with their client and customer expectations. But businesses are also evolving along with the larger culture.
Global consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) eliminated its dress code in 2016, reports Australian Financial Review (AFR). At the same time, the firm extended flexible working to its employees. This was all an effort designed by HR to boost employee engagement, notes AFR. "To be successful we need to give our people the autonomy to try new things, be different, bring their ideas forward and give them a go," PwC's Human Capital Leader Sue Horlin said, according to AFR. "You can only do that in an environment where you feel trusted and respected."
People's expectations around conformity have also changed, especially as digital "disruptors" like Facebook, Google and Apple have created new ways of working. Today, many creative influencers and business leaders choose to wear their own adopted work uniform. For years, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously wore the same gray shirt to work every day.
"I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community," Zuckerberg said when asked about his attire, as noted by CNBC. "I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life."
The Way Forward for Workplace Dress Codes
Organizations should offer employees the autonomy to find what works best for them, to be different and fully themselves, to come forward with innovative ideas and to take ownership of their roles. Those individual and organizational "wins" can only happen in a workplace culture where people feel trusted and respected.
The attitudes of your stakeholders matters regarding your dress code. You'll want to have two-way conversations rather than imposing rules and procedures. If you're not sure what your employees, potential recruits, customers and other stakeholders think about your having (or not having) a dress code, just ask them. Your dress code, or lack of it, is a cultural choice, so decide carefully whether you want top-down control, employee autonomy or something along that continuum.