Mark Twain is often credited with saying that “clothes make the man.” For many people the visual impression of our clothing may help to form an opinion that’s difficult to change. Yet recent decades have seen a shift towards more casual dress in many diverse occupations. Some decry falling standards, others applaud the change in favour of comfort.
So, does a workplace dress code still make sense? Should employees be told what to wear, how to look? In a recent SEEK survey of Australian workers, 58% believed a company should provide guidance on what to wear at work. What factors help to determine a workplace dress code?
Communicate what’s appropriate
A dress code, whether unspoken or spelled out explicitly, will help your workers know what is appropriate and what is not. Susan Heathfield writes for The Balance, “The majority of employees just want to fit in, work successfully, and succeed in their careers. A communicated dress code gives them one less thing to worry about.”
The nature of the business
A surf lifesaver, a surgeon, and a lawyer can’t all dress the same, even if they want to. A practical dress code means one that is comfortable and will not make it harder for a worker to do the job.
The image you want to convey
A consistent dress code is a powerful contributor to your workplace culture. Is your workplace seen as casual, modern, laid back? Or more formal, conservative, and serious? Lots of newer tech startups now insist that their workers dress casually. That supports and reinforces their chosen workplace culture.
Consider also the expectations of your industry and the opinions of your clients. If those in your industry typically dress to a certain standard, but your company doesn’t, could that be a deterrent to some customers?
Dress codes for different roles
Within your business, different roles are likely to require different dress codes. Typically, those individuals who have greater contact with clients are required to dress more formally than others. For example, the reception desk may need someone dressed to a higher standard than workers in offices on the other side of the wall.
Many chafe at the idea of wearing a uniform. After all, it’s the ultimate denial of individuality to have everyone wear what management decides. Yet, in Australia, it is the most common workplace dress code, according to the SEEK research. In many workplaces a uniform will help customers immediately identify staff, giving them better service. Just like a fan who wears his football team’s colours proudly, a uniform can help workers to feel a sense of belonging and pride in the company whose logo they bear.
A uniform or other clear identifier can also be helpful for tradespeople or anyone performing a service on someone else’s turf. For example, if an electrician comes to fix the wiring at my place, I want to know it’s not just a random stranger wanting to look around.
Employers need to be sure that whatever dress code they impose will not amount to discrimination. The Australian Human Rights Commission reminds us that a dress code could be discriminatory if some employees are apparently singled for different treatment because of background or certain personal characteristics. For example, if a company’s dress code requires female staff to wear revealing clothing but the same requirement does not apply to males, this could be sex discrimination.
The same could apply if a dress code applied to everyone creates a disadvantage to someone with a particular personal circumstance, such as a pregnant employee finding it difficult to wear a uniform that all employees wear.
Regulations within most industries are tight with this, but some employers go further. Rather than just conform to regulations, they may insist on more stringent guidelines for personal protective equipment.
If our workers go to the office dressed as if they’re ready for play, it may be more difficult to get into the right mental zone. As reported in Forbes, a casually dressed employee is likely to feel less focused and alert, according to Dr. Karen Pine, professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and fashion psychologist.
“When we put on an item of clothing it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment. A lot of clothing has symbolic meaning for us, whether it's ‘professional work attire’ or ‘relaxing weekend wear’, so when we put it on we prime the brain to behave in ways consistent with that meaning.”
Individually, smart workers keen to be promoted choose to dress like their overseers, rather than their peers, even if this means a more formal look. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
Sloppy or dirty clothes at any workplace send a clear message, “I don’t care.” Your workers project an image, not just of themselves, but of the company. Many businesses will be uncomfortable with workers wearing styles that are so outlandish that they scream “look at me,” instead of communicating trust and reliability.
Some business leaders may feel that a dress code is not needed in their company, confident that their workers have the maturity and good sense to dress appropriately. If you do have a dress code, be sure to communicate it clearly. If a new employee clearly doesn’t get it by observing others, let him or her know. Workers should be happy to dress to fit in. After all, if they don’t want to fit in at work, maybe they shouldn’t work for you.
US based financial consultancy Money Crashers gives this final advice: If your business clothing mantra is “clean, tailored, and professional,” it’s pretty hard to go wrong, regardless of the environment in which you work.