dress codes

One of the things I’ve learnt over the course of my HR career to date is that it’s quite often the smallest things which make the biggest difference to employees. Consult on a change of terms and conditions of employment and the fall out can be minimal. Fail to provide sufficient milk supplies for the week and you face a positive mutiny!

An emotive topic

Dress codes are one of those things which elicit extremely emotive responses in both employees and employers. Dependent on which side of the argument you sit on, “suited and booted” business attire is either an absolute must, or an unnecessary restriction. Is delivering an outstanding customer service the priority, with dress code irrelevant provided it doesn’t detract from this goal; or is it frankly not possible to deliver best in class service without being appropriately attired?

I’ve worked in environments at both ends of the spectrum. Early in my career, I took a role where everyone, regardless of role and of level, were required to dress in smart business attire. Since then – and this possibly represents how our approach to dress codes has relaxed in general – I’ve worked for organisations who have taken far more of a pragmatic approach to what their employees have worn to work.

Does it actually matter?

The question we really need to ask is: Does what your employees wear actually matter? Does favouring smart over casual actually bring any competitive advantage to your organisation… or could the reverse actually be true?

My personal view on the topic is that formal and restrictive dress codes are very, very rarely justified. There have been various arguments attempting to rationalise them over the years. “It’s important that our employees wear smart business attire as they represent the professional face of the business and need to meet with client expectations.” Really? In this enlightened day and age, do we really assume that someone has to be wearing a suit in order to be perceived as professional?

Think back to the last time you dealt with someone providing a professional service – maybe a banker, a mortgage advisor or an accountant. Would you have felt the quality of that service was negatively impacted if they were wearing a shirt and a smart pair of jeans as opposed to a suit and tie? Would you think less of that organisation if they had elected to allow their employees to dress more casually? If the answer is that you would, then I would argue you are focusing on the wrong elements of service provision.

What about productivity?

The other effect of enforcing a strictly “smart business” dress code is that you may actually, unwittingly, be contributing to decreased levels of employee productivity. Think back to how you felt when you last wore a suit or other business attire, as opposed to when you dressed down in whatever you wear at the weekend. Chances are, your choice of dress down clothing is substantially more comfortable and far less restrictive. When I was required to wear a suit at work, I found myself becoming actively uncomfortable towards the end of each day. I couldn’t wait to get out of the office and back home, where I would immediately change into something more comfortable.

By contrast, in my current role at Benefex, I broadly wear what I want to wear each day. My clothing isn’t restrictive, and it doesn’t cause me discomfort. As a result, I spend each day feeling far more relaxed and comfortable during my day in the office. I’m not therefore racing out of the door the moment the end of the day comes around, and without a series of clothing-related distractions I’m fully focused on the task at hand.

Equality in the workplace

I couldn’t write a blog post on dress codes without making at least passing mention to the ways they can also negatively impact upon your equality and diversity policies. A dress code which mandates that all men must wear ties, and all women must wear high heels? I struggle to see how that has a place in any business environment.

In many cases, I think confusion has arisen over the requirement for employees to be smart and well-presented, and the assumption that to be smart and well-presented you need to be wearing a shirt and tie. I have worked with individuals who have looked positively scruffy whilst adhering to the requirement to wear a suit to the strictest level of the law, and other individuals who have demonstrated a perfect customer facing appearance in something as casual as a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

Relaxing your approach

Police your dress code where you absolutely have to: where it is an absolute requirement for reasons of uniformity or safety. Where it’s not, consider whether a formal dress code is something that you absolutely need – and whether you could actually deliver equal or even greater competitive advantage by taking more of a relaxed approach.

Don’t underestimate, either, the goodwill a more relaxed dress code can engender with your employees. Sure, it might seem to be superficial, but we know that a number of our employees at Benefex see the fact that they can wear what they like each day as an enormous perk of the job. And an employee benefit which costs nothing, yet can lead to increased levels of engagement from a large percentages of your workforce? That’s got to be worth thinking about.