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Dress for Success? Or Comfort and Creativity?

March 14 2016 - by Carole Houlihan, CLP's Gender & Diversity Specialist

We often hear that the world is becoming more casual…Consider how we dress compared to how our grandparents dressed.

 Does your office have a dress code? Does it address broader issues of appearance (hair, body art, piercings)?  Is there a generational difference - do definitions of “appropriate attire” depend on one’s age and the type of workplace?  What can the public sector learn from the private sector?  

Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg broke the corporate dress mould when he wore his hoodie  to a meeting with potential Facebook investors in 2012. One hedge fund manager was quoted as saying:   

Mark and his signature hoodie: He’s actually showing investors he doesn’t care that much; he’s going to be him. I think that’s a mark of immaturity. I think that he has to realize he’s bringing investors in as a new constituency right now, and I think he’s got to show them the respect that they deserve because he’s asking them for their money.

Many others disagreed, saying that the success should be measured by performance rather than expensive suits.  (Interestingly, when Zuckerberg met President Obama, he wore a suit and gave the President a hoodie!)

Is it about appearance or performance? Perhaps a bit of both.

Many argue that formal dress constrains innovative thinking, and that employers with the most liberal approach to attire are some of the most innovative. Many companies have moved away from formal dress code policies in recent years, giving employees more freedom to decide what to wear.

Yet employers’ and employees' perceptions of words such as "business casual" or "dress-down days" can be dramatically different, leading to a negative effect on employee morale and retention. Guidelines around workwear can also be a relief for employees. A lack of guidelines around what to wear can be challenging for employees who want to dress properly for their jobs. In addition, without a formal policy, managers bear the burden of policing what’s acceptable, which can be awkward, especially across genders and cultures. A male manager, for example, might not want to have a discussion with a female employee about tube tops or too short hem lines.

Others suggest that an employer should decide what image it wants to portray to its clients and consistently send the same message in everything it does.  Therefore, the onus is on employers to clearly inform employees about required dress codes. Confusion can be eliminated through new employee orientation and written policies on this issue. 

 As younger men and women rise to more senior positions, what standards will they set?

Does your workplace have a written or unwritten dress code?

Has a senior staff member ever set a “bad example” by dressing too casually?

How are changing values about dress and appearance being addressed in your office?