Company Dress Codes: Professional or Passé?

In an era in which dress codes are quickly going out of fashion, many companies are hesitant to jump on the no-dress-code bandwagon.  In 2017, only 10% of companies had no official dress policy.  However, 30% had business casual every day, 23% had one casual dress day per week, and 22% had casual dress everyday, indicating a shift toward less-formal workplace attire.  Though this transition started back in the 1980s, its momentum has yet to slow; in the last decade alone, there has been a 10% increase in companies that permit casual attire.

So, what are the pros and cons of strict dress codes, casual dress codes, and having no dress code at all?

Strict Dress Codes

Many companies claim that formal dress codes are essential to maintaining a professional image. Some alleged benefits to formal dress codes include:

  • Creating workplace cohesion: A strict dress code can make your employees look unified and cohesive to clients and competitors.  Additionally, it can make your employees feel more like part of a group, indirectly encouraging teamwork.
  • Reflecting the company’s goals and visions: Having a more formal dress code can make other companies take your business more seriously.  Classy attire can connote that your company is prestigious and well-respected.
  • Ensuring employee safety: Some companies have stringent dress codes for the sole purpose of employee safety or to limit the risk of injury on the job.  For example, construction workers often are required to wear helmets, while doctors must wear scrubs and sometimes face masks and gloves.
  • Distinguishing employees: In situations in which employees and customers are mixed, dress codes are used as a means of distinguishing one from the other.  For instance, at hospitals, scrubs distinguish the nurses and doctors from their patients.  At an event, uniforms can distinguish servers from guests.  In stores, shirts embroidered with the store logo or name tags can help customers locate store employees.

However, critics of stringent dress codes claim that they can stifle creativity and hinder engagement.  They assert that a more casual (or no) dress code allows for individual expression and comfort, and is more practical for employees.  Furthermore, a dress code can unintentionally send the message to employees that their company does not trust them to dress themselves appropriately.

Some opponents of formal dress codes also note that it can even discriminate based on gender. For example, while women are often allowed to wear open-toed sandals, men are not.  Women are also often allowed to expose part of their legs (either in capris or skirts), have long hair, and have multiple ear piercings.  Conversely, some companies expect women to wear high heels to work, whereas it is never expected that men teeter around uncomfortably in these kinds of shoes.  Men, unlike women, are often required to wear ties.  This discrepancy between what attire is expected of each gender can cause some employees to feel that their company’s dress code is unjust.

For these reasons, more and more companies are opting for more casual dress codes.

Informal Dress Codes

More casual dress codes avoid some of the issues of strict ones.  They allow for more creativity and comfort while still preserving some level of professionalism.  One recent study even found that 61% of employees are more productive with a relaxed dress code.

Proponents of less-strict dress codes allege that it can even help companies avoid cultural discrimination.  For example, in an office where a suit is always mandatory, an employee who wants to wear a sari could feel like their culture is being marginalized.

To avoid legal disputes based on gender, religious or cultural discrimination, many companies are not only making their dress codes more casual, but also wording those documents more carefully.  An ever-growing number of employers are telling employees to dress “appropriately,” “professionally,” or “in business attire” without giving a lot of detail.  This vagueness is intended to avoid culpability in case of a dress code lawsuit.

However, despite these benefits, many supporters of formal, well-delineated dress expectations still argue that there is a level of professionalism communicated by traditional, upscale apparel that cannot be matched by casual attire.  They also argue that ambiguous language, while helping avoid legal issues, can also lead to employees interpreting the dress code as leniently as they please.

No Dress Codes

A small number of companies have opted to eliminate dress codes entirely on the grounds that they limit comfort and originality and make employees feel like their company does not trust their decision-making.  Opponents of dress codes also claim that what an employee wears to work should not impact their performance or achievements and therefore shouldn’t matter.

While these types of dress codes do allow for individuality, comfort, and self-expression, they do pose issues of presentation.  Dress code defenders claim that an office without any outfit guidelines can look careless and unprofessional to their clients

Dress Code Legality

Regardless of what dress code your office employs, there are laws that it must follow.  For one, it cannot discriminate based on gender – men and women must have similar dress standards.  Secondly, it must allow for reasonable religious accommodations.  These measures can help all employees feel like they are being treated equally.

Whatever dress code your company opts for, make sure it is tailored to your work environment and suits your company’s style.  As long as it fosters a productive, inclusive office atmosphere, any dress code is en vogue.