Do Professional Dress Codes Still Serve a Purpose?

With summer comes shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flop shoes. I mused the other day to the head of our department that it might be time to introduce a modified, business-friendly toga for men. Most still aren’t comfortable wearing sundresses, so an updated Roman toga seemed like the next best thing. With shorts still unacceptable in most places of business, is it time to reconsider the importance of dress codes for employees who are not customer facing?

A piece in the Monterey Herald last week attempted to answer the question of why to bother with dress codes and how to enforce them. “Business dress codes are important not just for how employees present themselves to customers and the public, but they address important safety concerns, as well. For instance, flip-flops and other open-toe sandals are generally not appropriate to wear to work due to their casual appearance. In addition, their tendency to cause trips and falls make them a workplace safety hazard,” author Sara Boyns writes. 

It’s clear Boyns is more cautious and more of a stickler about clothing than I am. I never thought before about how dangerous flip-flops and open-toe shoes could be in a carpeted office environment, though if the employee was working in an industrial setting, I could see why that kind of footwear would be a bad idea. She recommends a hardline approach in which those who violate the dress code are sent home: “If an employee’s clothing does not conform to your business’ dress code, you should request that the employee return home and change. Alternatively, you may speak privately with the employee, explain why the particular article of clothing is not appropriate, and request that the employee not wear that type of clothing in the future. Whichever method you choose, remember to be consistent and apply the same standards to all employees.” 

The danger of flip-flops aside, why does it matter what an employee, who will not be meeting customers, wears while at the office? When I was in graduate school, the roommate of a friend was getting dressed and putting on full makeup to go to the library to study. I asked her why she bothered. She admitted that she mostly did it in case she ran into anybody, but also said she concentrated better, and was more alert, when she was formally dressed and in makeup. Is there a psychological case to be made for dressing up to be in the right mindset for serious work?

“New research shows it actually impacts how you think. Professional dress, one study found, increases abstract thinking and gives people a broader perspective. So that tie might actually be switching on your creativity button,” an article by Molly St. Louis on the Website, Inc., notes.

That surprise finding is hard for me to reconcile with the expressive function clothing plays. I have always enjoyed expressing my feelings through the clothes I wear, so it’s a surprise to learn of research that says professional dress can stimulate creative thinking. However, the greater point may be the perception of how clothing impacts a person, rather than the reality. I remember an almost teary despair that came over me when I checked into a Buddhist monastery in South Korea with a group of travel writers years ago. We were given what looked like burlap sacks to wear for the two days we would be there. I felt like my identity, and power of personal choice, had been taken away, and that conformity, in the form of a dowdy uniform, had been imposed. I was so relieved and de-stressed when I finally put my long white Coach trench coat and sparkly gold Ugg sneakers back on that I stretched out on the wooden floor of the cabin I had shared with at least 10 other women and fell asleep while my traveling companions trekked up a mountain in their burlap sacks.

Being able to wear clothing that brings you joy is an important workplace benefit. When I was interviewing for a new job about 10 years ago, I remember feeling angst at the thought that I might have to work for a conservative company that would not be OK with miniskirts and blue tights. “You mean, I’m going to have to wear dark and neutral colors, and stick to tights that are in that same palette?” I said to myself. “How depressing!” 

With open-plan office layouts taking away the joy of a personalized workspace, clothing remains a bastion of self-expression. Gender norms are being erased, with men—especially in more liberal, urban environments, such as New York City—sometimes wearing clothing traditionally thought of as female. 

The need to make a personal statement in your attire has never been more pressing for so many people. Is there a possibility that this power of self-expression could create employees who are more satisfied in their work and more capable of delivering high-level service to customers?

How does your company manage dress codes? What is the Learning professional’s role in training managers to communicate to employees the company’s expectations for how they present themselves to their peers and customers?