Dress Codes: Keeping Up Appearances, Not Productivity

Business CasualAs I sit in my office, Bermuda shorts and sandals tucked under my desk and a casual button-down shirt above, I think I can say without any bias that, no – how one dresses does not have an impact on productivity, professionalism or engagement. A jacket doesn’t make the man, a tie doesn’t focus the mind, dress shoes don’t energize the body and slacks bestow no known superpower. You can dress for success all you want, but it won’t actually make you better at your job.
That said, why is it that so many organizations maintain and enforce a dress code? First, for years people have been told that how one looks does improve performance. Some swear that hard data exists showing that business formal dress heightens alertness, improves manners, promotes professionalism, reduces tardiness and absenteeism, and increases engagement in the workplace. For them, being crisp and polished shows pride and being well dressed exudes authority.
It’s a pervasive attitude – nevertheless, there are no definitive studies I’ve reviewed that show it to be true. And actually, if you check sources, a lot of the propaganda that’s out there was sponsored by either the makers of formal wear or, since the rise of business casual, khaki and polo shirt outlets. For every study showing that business formal dress improves productivity by creating a professional environment, there’s another showing that casual comfort does the same by increasing employee morale. But most non-anecdotal, controlled studies simply show little or no affect in either direction. And remember that morale is not engagement – a common misnomer.
Not surprisingly, employees tend to think casual comfort is more productive, while employers want their team members to look sharp. Neither contention shows a causal link, though. Really.
The second and more important reason dress codes are put in place is that they are an element of corporate culture, image and branding. While I might contend that clothing won’t make you better at your job, it is true that it might make others perceive you as being better at your job.
A recent Ipsos Global @dvisory: Proper Attire in the Workplace global study of attitudes in 24 countries showed that “45% of workers think someone wearing casual work clothes is more productive in their job than someone wearing a more prescribed workplace or business attire … but 55% of workers believe someone wearing a more prescribed workplace or business attire is more productive in their job than someone wearing casual work clothes.” A slight bias, but also one that the study shows can be much more pronounced in certain regions. My personal dress code is fairly normal … in Hungaria.
In general, people expect lawyers, bankers and executives to wear ties, office workers should at least wear business or smart casual, and many other professions and work settings require some type of uniform, be they scrubs, overalls or a monogrammed shirt. How else are appropriate rolls and social norms to be determined at a glance? And in the above mentioned Ipsos study, “two-thirds (65%) of workers said that senior managers should always be more dressed up than employees.” So though they want to be judged by their work and not their wardrobe, most will still assign status and importance to the guy with the tie.
Of course how this plays out depends on your industry and line of work. While I’d be shocked to see a bank officer dressed like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, a video game tester would gain no cred from a tie – at least not one that didn’t depict Mario on a field of mushrooms or have an iPod docking station built in. And different generations will always bring their unique attitudes to the workplace; not necessarily more casual, but something different none the less (eg. given a sharp stick, kids today will pierce anything). This has made defining business casual increasingly precarious over the years.
There are always ebbs, flows and pervasive trends in ideas about what’s appropriate to wear to work. And while the workplace has progressed to increasingly more casual attire since the seventies, the shift to street casual for professionals has pulled back since the Dot-com bubble burst forced many a maverick to get a grownup job. Right now, business or smart casual is the norm for most, with the occasional relaxed casual day thrown in for a morale booster.
But no matter how casual it gets, dress codes – or at least some semblance of guidelines – are still a good thing to have in place. Why? Because there’s always somebody that’s going to push it and take things too far in the forms of a tattered jean, bare midriff, too-short skirt or a t-shirt bearing an offensive (to someone) message. Somebody might even show up with no clothes … and then you’ll have to deal with that mess with no clear policy on the books.
If you’re worried about enforcement, remember that there’s a weird interplay when it comes to dress codes as far as career advancement is concerned. While most surveys say that employees (especially those in their 20s) value more casual work environments and that this can help to retain high-performers, it’s also true that dressing less formally leads to less recognition for accomplishments and less professional respect or regard on the part of colleagues. And dressing up for hiring interviews is business formal, with very little leeway. One way cited to promote “business appropriate” attire is for managers to frame it as a good choice for advancement and recognition. Again, creative environments may vary.
As a final thought, keep in mind when designing a dress or appearance code to craft it carefully and apply it consistently to avoid running afoul of anti-discrimination laws. Private businesses usually have a lot of leeway in this area, but reasonable accommodation should always be considered. Whether deemed necessary from a legal standpoint or not, religious or cultural accommodations generally have a positive impact on engagement and productivity, as they reflect positively on an organizations image in regard to diversity and inclusion.
Dress codes are about keeping up appearances and standards, not productivity and engagement. For customer-facing positions, base your decisions on the customers’ expectations and you’ll usually be okay.
I’m always surprised by how passionate people feel about dress and appearance policies. Share your thoughts and let me know how your organization views business appropriate attire.
Eric Davis
Eric received his master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Marshall University in 1996. He has had 20+ years of workforce experience in a variety of fields. Before coming to i4cp, he worked as a laboratory technician for DuPont, a conference planner for Marshall University, the public relations manager for the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Technical Manufacturing, and a graphic designer for COX Communications.