Times have changed since charcoal three piece suits (with only white or blue shirts) and bow tie blouses were the expectation for professionals at work. In some industries they still stand, but for the most part working attire has evolved to a more casual mode. In this post we won’t be advocating for a particular dress code, but we will discuss what some of the modes of business dress communicate. Dress codes reflect and reinforce your company culture, so it is important that you be intentional about your choices – and your range of tolerance.
Relationship with Customers
Certain professional roles have maintained a tradition of more formal dress – bankers, attorneys, etc. Professionals demonstrate their authority, seriousness, and trustworthiness through their dress codes. Even in these cases, though, there is a trend toward slightly more casual attire at work unless court day, loan committee or some other special occasion mandates that the individual dress up.
The customer-related goal of a dress code is to create rapport and relatability with them. In a trendy retail store you will usually see team members dressed in trendy clothing. The dress of the employees showcases the style of the store. A customer-facing person creates barriers when he or she is too far of a mismatch – over-dressing can create suspicion of “slick” behavior, and under-dressing can be perceived as careless and sloppy.
In general, more authority is conveyed by more formal attire, and formality also tends to increase in markets that are more urban, such as New York City or Washington, DC. When you are working in a “big pond”, you are more subject to first or superficial impressions. Because of the size of the environment, at work you are often more likely to be seen in a role rather than known as a person.
Two examples where authority is explicitly communicated through dress are the armed services and health care. In the military you wear your status on your sleeves, collar, cover, etc. In a hospital your rank and even your department are often represented by lab coats or the color of your scrubs. In these environments where snap decisions can literally mean the difference between life and death, it is important that the scope of an individual’s authority is visible and obvious to all.
Where dress codes are concerned, this word doesn’t have to mean a professional designation – for our purposes here it’s more about demonstrating that work is your top priority right now. Professional dress avoids creating distractions by being relatively more covered up and fitting well, and suitable work clothing is in a good state of cleanliness and repair. The professional standard for an artistic business like a hair salon will be different than that of a bank.
If you want to provide consistency and for customers to see employees as interchangeable, uniforms might be important to your business. Logos on garments can create a feeling of belonging, of being on the same team. Uniforms can also serve a marketing purpose – when your team members are seen on the street they are identifiable as part of your company. Some businesses have considered providing uniforms to reduce the number of debates over work attire by narrowing employee choices to a selection of work-appropriate mix and match items. This move can help the team members save clothing dollars as well, especially when the employer provides a certain number of the uniform pieces or subsidizes their purchase.
A Pew Research Center poll in 2012 found that almost 40% of adults aged 18-29 had at least one tattoo. A full 14% of people have body piercings other than in the earlobe. In many workplaces neither is considered to be appropriate unless they are located below the neck and/or not visible while the individual is wearing work attire. Given the popularity of tattoos in particular but also piercings and gauges (where the earlobe hole is stretched), your business would be smart to think through policies on these items now. You will likely see more and more applicants who have permanent personal decoration, and if they are not compatible with your company culture you can’t simply tell the team member to go home and change.
Cultural diversity impacts your business as does gender, race and ethnicity, religion, etc. Cultural diversity can encompass a fairly broad set of criteria, which might include adjectives like artsy, rural, urban, Northeastern, West Coast, military, etc. Variety in background and frame of reference adds value to your business. It also means that your team members will not be operating from the same set of assumptions about what is and is not appropriate business dress. When you are open to the individuality that comes from diversity, and when you are willing to consider that in your definition of what is professional, you communicate that your company culture is one of inclusiveness.