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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?




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Joan H. Underwood - Reply

Carole, I agree that the onus is on the employer to set the tone/standard.  The leadership of an organization is responsible for establishing the culture.  That includes the overall aesthetic including how employees present themselves.  Therefore, there is no single right approach.

During my tenure as HR Manager for a certain financial conglommerate, I became concerned about how some staff dressed on casual Fridays.  I put together a task force made up of a representative from the HR departmetn along with staff from the various departments and tasked them with drafting a dress code.  Once we had approved the new policy, we debuted it with a fashion show highlighting do's and don'ts.  In addition to clearly demonstrating what constituted acceptable attire, it turned out to be a fun and memorable event for all.


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Alexia - Reply

To adopt an approach of "Wear what you are comfortable with" for the professional/work environment, no doubt contributes to future difficulty for managers and supervisors as it relates to professional individual and corporate image. 

Image contributes to perception of who and what we are to the point where we believe that we are what we portray and that contributes to our work output.


Leaders and managers, must assume their roles in that regard and make a deliberate effort to indicate what is acceptable and what is not, otherwise, it would be a pleasure for employees to run with the idea of "do as it pleases me". 

Overall I believe Success is a little of both - appearance and performance, since one complements the other immensely.

Today's designers have provided us with a myraid of options which are both professional looking, cute and cool for the work place.




Nadia - Reply

There's a dress code in my office that even visitors are required to follow. However on Fridays there seems to be an acceptance of a more relaxed dress code which is now being revisited.

I think the dress code of an organisation and its culture and the image it wants to portray. Fortunately or Unfortunately employees can reflect that image by the way they dress.

Having said that though, does working at an organisation means that they change who I am expressed in the way I dress?

Kay - Reply

My office and by extension the public service has a dress code.  Instances where you can depart from the sombre dress code are highlighted and relate to the nature of work.  Dress code is cultured for lack of a better term.  

I have worked in organisations where the dress code for identified Fridays was more relaxed.  This led to a relaxed attitude in every sense for large categories of workers.  It was counter-productive to a large measure. 

Prior to the convening of the last inter-sessional meeting of Heads of Government in Belize, Heads of Government were asked not to wear suits. Maybe there may be some merit to a hybrid approach bearing in mind our climate.  Just a thought.

Carole Houlihan - Reply

Thanks to Joan for your idea of a  DOs and DON'Ts  fashion show! It sounds like it would be a great way to communicate--unless one of the models is  too easily identified as a staff member who dresses inappropriately!

 I think that  younger people, especially those with many options ( e.g. highly trained in the tech field) may decide not to take a job due to a dress code, but most  people do accept that one cannot always make every decision about the workplace. It may also be a question of how much contact staff have with the clients and public.  

It seems the key issue is to set a tone and a standard for behaviour.  It is also important, I think, that the responsibility for setting be clearly allocated. The idea of a committee seems like a good one.