What is the point of a formal dress code in the workplace?

August 27, 2019

For a long time, I have been puzzled by companies that enforce a formal dress code in the workplace, even if they don’t seem to really need to.

I am all for positive brand representation. And I fully support employers wanting employees to look presentable. But there’s one question that I have never quite been able to answer: If you can give your employees a weekly “Dress Down Friday”, then why do you insist they wear stuffy formal wear Monday to Thursday?

And unless you can tell me exactly what changes on a Friday, then I would like you to please read my short rant below. And if you have a compelling argument to make, then I genuinely want to hear it!

This is what I mean when I talk about a ‘formal dress code’

When I talk about a ‘formal dress code’, I want to be clear that I don’t mean a dress code such as a company uniform, or a special set of clothes that help an employee perform their job. I realise that chefs should wear aprons, and that builders should wear hard hats!

What I mean, is this general notion of smart business wear. The commonly accepted clothing style that many people seem to think screams “PROFESSIONAL!” You know, the black shoes, the shirt and tie, the pencil skirt, whatever.

Now, I’m not saying it’s bad to wear these things, or even that it’s necessarily bad to want your employees to wear these things. But I do think that some companies insist on a formal dress code in the workplace, without it being strictly necessary.

Some companies insist on a formal dress code in the workplace

One of my very first jobs was at a crappy little call centre in Sheffield. We worked from a tiny, cramped office room, above a vintage clothing store. We were paid minimum wage, and treated like objects. Most new starters didn’t last more than a week.

Every day in that job was exactly the same. We would turn up to work, sit at our desk, and sift through sheets of paper containing the names and telephone numbers of local businesses. We would manually dial each number into our telephone handsets, and try to speak to whoever was in charge. We were trying to convince them to switch telephone service provider.

Why am I telling you this? Well, the point here is that none of us ever saw a customer face to face. And no customers ever visited the office. Yet, despite all this, we were told that it was mandatory to come to work in a smart formal shirt, smart formal shoes, and a smart formal tie. You don’t even want to know what happened if we forgot to wear a tie.

And it isn’t always strictly necessary

Now, this always struck me as odd. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why some companies prefer their employees to dress formally. For example, if they have employees in customer-facing roles, and they’d like to maintain a particular brand image.

But to make office-based employees, on a minimum wage, dress as if they were high-flying field sales executives, seemed a bit pointless. And one day, I voiced this to one of the company directors, who was visiting from Head Office. I asked him why this rule existed, considering the fact that not a single employee in the room would ever meet a customer face to face.

“It makes you work harder, and more professionally” was his reply. “If you feel the part, you’ll play the part. The way you dress will affect your ability to represent our brand over the phone.”

I suppose his answer made sense on paper. But did I mention already that most people quit within their first week? I think the company had more pressing issues than enforcing a formal dress code.

Casual gear can have practical benefits

I’ve always felt like it’s a little bit pointless to enforce a formal dress code in the workplace. In my own experience, I have noticed that employees seem to produce their best work when they wear clothes they feel more comfortable in. And it seems I’m not alone.

Scott Crumrine, CEO and Founder of Guava Family Inc, says that while certain dress codes are sometimes required, such as for hygiene or safety purposes, as a general rule, casual dress codes seem to be more effective.

“I have noticed my employees are far more relaxed with a casual dress code” he explains. “They are able to wear comfortable clothes that often align with their after-work schedule. Additionally, casual dress codes alleviate the need for employees to purchase formal clothes that can be expensive and time consuming to maintain and clean on a regular basis.”

Plus it can help bring your culture to life

But even beyond these purely practical benefits, Scott says that having a casual dress code can really help you foster a rich culture. Especially within a younger workforce.

“Casual dress codes allow employees to express their individuality” he says. “This creates an environment that fosters individual development and creativity.”

Speaking as somebody who works for a successful company that really values individual development and creativity, I can say that I support Scott’s theory here. You can read more about our culture of innovation here.

You probably still want people to take care of their personal appearance

Now, maybe you’ve read this article, and are right now thinking to yourself: “Damn, he’s right. I should let employees wear whatever the hell they want!”

And if that’s what you’re thinking, then good luck. But that’s not necessarily what I’m advocating here.

I think it’s important to give people freedom. I think it’s important to help people feel comfortable. I think it’s important to let people express individuality, and to help people carve their own way of working. I also think that being a little more relaxed with your dress code is one possible way of doing that.

But setting some sort of expectations could be helpful, especially if you don’t want people turning up wearing pyjamas. Or worse, wearing nothing at all!

Personally, I’m an advocate of the ‘smart casual’ approach – which can help you strike that fine balance between the two extremes of a workforce that looks scruffy, and a workforce that looks like an army of starchy drones.

There is a scientific definition of ‘smart casual’, if you’re interested

Nearly 2,000 people every month ask Google “what is smart casual?”. And this was what drove fashion retailer Hidepark to commission research into exactly what smart casual actually means.

Hidepark used AI to analyse several definitions of the term ‘smart casual’. Then, they came up with two lists of common wardrobe items – one for men, one for women. According to the data pulled out by the robots, these are the items of clothing most commonly considered part of a ‘smart casual’ outfit.

For women

  1. Mid-length dress
  2. Fitted jeans
  3. Tailored blazer
  4. Ankle boots
  5. Flat shoes
  6. Plain coloured top
  7. White trainers
  8. Midi skirt
  9. Jewellery
  10. Lace designs

For men

  1. Dark jeans
  2. Plain shirt
  3. Tailored jacket
  4. Polished shoes
  5. Non-patterned trousers
  6. Suede loafers
  7. Pressed chinos
  8. White trainers
  9. Suede boots
  10. Plain t-shirts

Or, to put this into the words of stylist Claire Jacklin: “Smart enough that you don’t feel ‘scruffy’, and relaxed enough not to feel stuffy!”

OK, that’s my rant over. You are welcome to agree with me, disagree with me, or a mixture of the two. Just use the comment box below 🙂

 

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