In 1998, I went to work as a recruiter in a small agency. Our work was done almost exclusively over the phone and through fax machines. We rarely met with clients and, when we did, they never came to our office. And yet, we had a business professional office dress code. I was required to wear dress clothes, including a tie, to work every day. Regardless of the rationale from management about this policy, I thought it was ridiculous. The dress clothes I could afford at the time were uncomfortable and I hated wearing them.
I spent a lot of creative energy trying to undermine the dress code policy. I would argue with management about it. I would complain to my colleagues about it. And, I would find every loophole in the policy to exploit as a form a protest. I looked sloppy — on purpose. It was a wholly unproductive use of my time.
Apparently, I'm not alone in my disdain for dress codes. While the pushback against dress codes seems to be a relatively recent trend, I suspect employees have disliked them for decades but haven't felt they had the luxury of an opinion because of competition for jobs.
As humans, we are driven by a need to express our individuality starting in adolescence. How we dress and adorn ourselves is an important expression of that individuality. As a result, the dress code can feel as if it strips us of our individuality.
The Dangers of Dress Codes
Most employees, if asked, would likely prefer greater freedom in how they dress at work for reasons of individual expression, comfort or just practicality. If you care about engaging and retaining your employees, that alone should be enough to convince you to take a hard look at your dress code. But, there are far more negative impacts of your dress code than simply ignoring an employee's preference.
1) It Sends a Message of Distrust
The vast majority of employees are adults who have been dressing themselves for most of their lives. A majority of those adults are motivated to keep their jobs. When you tell them what to wear and what not to wear, you send a not-so-subtle message that you don't trust them to dress themselves appropriately. Great Place to Work®, which determines the list for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, says that "at its core, a great workplace is about the level of trust that employees experience in their leaders." It's hard to create this kind of environment when getting dressed every morning is a reminder that your organization doesn't trust you.
2. It May Be Perpetuating a Sexist or Discriminatory Double Standard
CBS News reports that a woman in the U.K. was fired because she refused to wear high heels to work. She took up a petition against what she believed was a sexist policy to have the issue discussed in Parliament and gathered more than 100,000 signatures in just three days. Too often, a dress code reflects the worldview or value system of the executive team (often mostly white males, as Forbes notes) rather than being driven by either a true business need or to enhance employee performance. An example of this played out in national news when a female journalist was denied entry to the Speaker's Lobby at the U.S. House of Representatives because she was wearing a sleeveless dress, as CBS News reports. If your dress code forbids open-toed shoes for women, that's a good sign your policy is flawed.
Not all dress codes are bad, but most are unnecessary. I'm not suggesting you shouldn't provide guidance to employees relative to appropriate dress at work. But, if you desire an engaged and motivated workforce, consider guidelines.
-If your dress code isn't driven by a specific business need or safety issue, eliminate or scale it back. If you require certain clothing for safety reasons, then you should provide that to employees. And presenting a branded or specific image to customers is valid, but don't over prescribe.
-Express that you trust employees. I've worked with organizations whose stated dress codes were, "dress for your day" and "dress in a way that makes you most comfortable and confident." These send a very different and empowering message to employees than traditional policies.
-Coach instead of punish. If an employee doesn't dress appropriately, it could be because they come from a different background or cultural environment and literally don't know any better. Dress is a very personal issue for employees, so treat them with care and dignity when addressing mistakes.
What message is your office dress code sending employees? What message do you want it to send? It can either support employee engagement or be an obstacle. Which are you choosing?
Stay up-to-date on the latest workforce trends and insights for HR leaders: subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.