The recent dress code debacle at the US Senate left me pondering the impact that dress codes can have on employee engagement. Does specifying a dress code or having a uniform positively or negatively affect engagement? Can dressing in a similar way help to unite a workforce and build a sense of community, or do employees feel disempowered by being told they need to dress in a particular way?
Whether it’s ‘business formal’, ‘business professional’, ‘business casual’ or ‘casual’, it’s common practice for organizations to require employees to look a particular way at work. But mandating the way in which team members must look can become a bit of a minefield, with some employers being seen as overly authoritative or even being accused of appearance-based discrimination.
In this article, we consider the pros and cons of requiring employees to wear a defined dress code at work. So button up, grab your favorite office mug, and let’s jump in!
The case for a defined dress code at work
Let’s start with the case for requiring employees to wear a specified dress code or uniform at work.
There will always be industries and professions that require employees to wear a uniform for health and safety reasons or legal compliance. You wouldn’t want to be wheeled into an operating theater by a surgeon dressed in sandals and an un-sterile tank top, for example. Or to find loose hairs in your lasagne because the kitchen staff weren’t wearing hair nets. Uniforms or specified dress codes can also help to keep employees safe, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) in operational environments.
Another argument for having a defined dress code or uniform is to enable employees to be easily identified by customers or members of the public. Take customer-facing employees such as airline cabin crew, retail or hospitality workers, and firefighters. It’s important that their physical appearance sets them apart as an employee, allowing others to identify them when they need help.
But what about everyone else? What is the rationale for requiring employees to look a certain way when health, safety, and legal compliance are not issues, and they do not need to be physically identifiable at work?
In one study, 86% of participants said they believed physical appearance matters in the workplace, with 90% feeling that their appearance influences client perception and company image, 85% saying it affects their confidence, and 73% saying it affects employee competency.
There’s no doubt that having a clearly defined dress code policy ensures employees are representing the company in a consistent and professional manner, which is especially important for client interactions. A dress code can form an integral part of an organization’s image, setting expectations and communicating company culture.
Professional appearances and culture aside, studies have even found that the clothing we wear influences our performance. Five different studies provided researchers from California State University and Columbia University with evidence that wearing formal business attire enhances abstract cognitive processing, and elevates both confidence and performance.
Dress codes can give employees a sense of belonging and connection, bringing team members together and making them feel part of the bigger picture. Put simply, requiring employees to dress in a similar way can contribute toward a positive sense of community among co-workers.
A more professional and unified company image, enhanced cognitive processing, and a greater sense of community? It’s a pretty convincing case.
But before you start re-writing your dress code policy or placing a bulk order for shiny new uniforms, let’s take a look at the counter-argument. There are two sides to every coin.
The case against a defined dress code at work
To balance the argument, let’s consider the case against mandating a unified dress code or uniform at work.
Cutting straight to the chase, defining a specific way in which the organization requires its employees to dress can stifle authenticity and individual expression. There is resistance against ‘the people at the top’ deciding what employees should look like, and how they should dress.
In fact, the study we referenced earlier that found 86% of employees felt their physical appearance mattered in the workplace also revealed that one in four of them had experienced appearance-based discrimination. And a more recent study of US employees from earlier this year found that 36% had been discriminated against based on their appearance.
Appearance-based discrimination happens when an employee is judged because of the way they look, or evaluated on their physical appearance rather than their performance.
In an article for FastCompany, inclusion specialist Ritu Bhasin commented –
“The problem is that many industries continue to push wardrobe rules that largely tie back to the norms of homogenous white male-led leadership teams, and that appearance-based bias still runs rampant”
Of course, not all companies with dress codes or uniform requirements are guilty of appearance-based discrimination. But they could be missing out on the best talent. A dress code that excludes people with visible tattoos, brightly colored hair, or sleeveless shirts may prevent some of the most talented candidates from joining the organization. The way somebody looks or dresses does not reflect their expertise or skill level, and judging a book by its cover is not a good strategy when you’re looking for the best candidates.
Dictating how employees need to look at work can also be damaging to authenticity and individual expression, both of which are important factors in building an engaged and loyal workforce. Encouraging authentic self-expression at work is shown to improve employee motivation, enhance wellbeing, and increase job satisfaction. Enforcing a dress code that makes employees feel as though they’re unable to be authentic can be incredibly damaging to engagement, resulting in higher employee turnover.
Finally, imposing a strict dress code that is not required for safety, legal, customer or client-facing reasons can negatively impact company culture. It’s 2023, and many companies are championing diversity and inclusion initiatives to create a more equal and equitable workforce. Yet, those same companies are reluctant to let go of historical dress code policies that often have different appearance requirements for men and women. This alone raises a truckload of concerns. Is it really acceptable to require employees to dress in a certain way based on their gender?
What about our transgender and gender-fluid colleagues? And putting gender to one side, what about the ways in which these strict dress codes impact religious beliefs?
Before we fall any further into this hole of doom, let’s explore a few ways that organizations can approach dress codes while remaining true to their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
How to approach dress codes at work
With strong arguments both for and against company dress codes, it’s clear there’s no single answer for all organizations. That being said, there are certain things to keep in mind when approaching this tricky topic at work.
Make sure the dress code policy reflects the culture
The organization’s approach to dress codes should accurately reflect the company’s culture and values. If the dress code policy has stayed the same for many years, it’s unlikely to have evolved with the growth and positive changes the organization has experienced.
The company’s requirements when it comes to its employees’ physical appearance should be reviewed every time there is a change to its strategy or values.
Be sensitive to social norms
It’s not just the organization that is constantly changing. Modern society is continuing to progress in a way that enables people to be their authentic selves and express themselves in a genuine way. And as the social norms of our society continue to evolve and develop, so must office dress codes.
Treat employees as adults
Employees want to be able to dress in ways that best reflect who they are. They want the freedom and flexibility to wear the clothing that they feel is appropriate for the day ahead of them.
Leaders have an opportunity to build a positive company culture and improve engagement by removing strict workplace dress codes and empowering their people to be the ones in control of their physical appearances. Employees deserve to be treated as adults, and organizations need to trust their judgment of what is and is not appropriate.