About 20 years ago there was a clear distinction: white collar or blue collar work. Your employment was quite literally defined by your dress. But then casual dress day appeared, lines became blurred, smart or casual, dress up or dress down, what’s the right dress code for your business?
In the movie Office Space – the cult satire on modern working life – there’s a scene in which the incompetent and unlikeable manager Bill Lumberg announces Hawaiian Shirt Day.
“Remember: next Friday is Hawaiian shirt day!”
The context of the announcement is why it’s hilarious: everyone’s just been told there’s a round of mass lay-offs and they’re all at risk of losing their jobs. Wearing fun clothing for a day is the last thing anyone wants.
And I can’t help but think of it when Casual Friday is mentioned.
Casual Friday (or its other equivalent days of the week) can be a fun way to jazz up a potentially dull corporate environment. But they can also be seen as a bit infantile; a slightly patronising attempt to earn goodwill amongst staff.
Are casual dress days a necessary moment of levity for hard-working staff, or should they be abolished along with dress codes altogether?
Arguments for a smart dress code
The existence of Casual Day means every other day has to be Smart Day, and you’ll have to define what it means to dress smartly – whether that’s suits and ties, dress shirts, long skirts, muted colours, and so on.
Companies around the world see it as a necessity, so there must be some benefit to keeping everyone looking sharp, right?
Let’s have a look at why your company might benefit from a dress code:
Having a consistent dress style can make a workplace environment more comfortable, with an increased feeling of team cohesion. If people dress the same, they might feel a better sense of togetherness.
You’ve always had a dress code, it’s the well embedded culture of the business and you want to both respect that culture and not rock the boat.
You’re in one of those sectors where smart dress is the norm: finance companies and banking are traditional wearers of the full suit and tie. Times are changing though, but maybe you’re not the one to push the change and stand out in the crowd.
It deflects focus away from attention seekers. We’ve all known the office joker who likes to wear the loudest possible shirts, ties and socks. It’s a distraction and can be a bit annoying.
Whether we admit it or not, we judge people by their appearance, even subconsciously. Despite the stereotype of the Silicon Valley coder building billion-dollar apps while dressed in jeans and a hoodie, some clothing does infer characteristics of the wearer.
If I came to work wearing jeans sagging down my waist along with a shabby old gym shirt, some folks might not take me seriously as a leader. Even if I’m ‘in the zone’, having a great day and feeling inspired, others might not see it that way if my clothing says the opposite.
As casual as your company might be, your clients might think otherwise. Although at Timetastic we do much of our client communication remotely, I recognise others do more face-to-face.
If you’re selling to big corporates – finance, or government for example – you’re probably doing yourself a disservice if you rock up to a pitch in your shorts and a baseball cap. (Unless you’re an ad agency and want to look ‘creatively disruptive’. That tends to work in their favour.)
Arguments for casual dress
On the flip side, you could make every day Casual Dress Day. There’s plenty of benefits from a relaxed or nonexistent dress code – you could either make it “wear whatever you want” or specify a more casual everyday uniform – jeans, t-shirts and the like.
Here’s why Casual Everyday might be a better choice:
Most adults are capable of dressing themselves appropriately without someone else telling them what to put on. It seems like a bit of a parental intervention to dictate what they should or shouldn’t wear.
Managers aren’t always comfortable dishing out restrictive advice on what not to wear; it’s a bit of a reach to dictate the exact length a skirt should be, or to which point on the arm your shirt sleeve can be rolled up to.
Be honest here, wearing a certain type of garment isn’t going to affect performance, there are better ways to increase productivity. But being restricted might actually reduce productivity if it goes against someone’s character.
Stick a graphic designer in a suit and tie and, sure, they won’t instantly lose their abilities, but the discomfort they’ll feel will subtly affect their comfort within the office environment.
If someone’s not customer-facing, what’s the point of enforcing a strict dress code? Does your IT worker who only deals with people internally really need to wear a tie to fix computer equipment? You might argue your dress code is a “cultural thing”, but that doesn’t hold up when you think about it.
You could exempt non-customer-facing workers from the dress code, but that’ll only create division with the rest of your team, and look a bit strange when anyone visits.
Dress codes create more work for HR departments – this includes writing the dress codes, communicating them, updating them and, worst of all, enforcing them. Do you want your HR managers moderating petty disagreements about the cut of someone’s top?
Their time and energy should be spent on the important things. The simple fact is, people are going to misinterpret your dress code, or put their own unique angle on it, and at some point it’s going to provoke conflict.
Dress codes mean expense: someone’s got to pay for this business suit, and it’s either you or your employee.
While it’s generally accepted people working in certain industries provide their own dress, you don’t want to force anyone to update their entire wardrobe just to be able to work for you. (If you’ve ever had to buy a suit for a job interview, you’ll know the feeling – it’s doubly annoying when you join the company and realise nobody wears them anyway).
So if you add it all up, the maths is pretty clear – there’s more downsides than upsides to enforcing dress codes.
If you’re not in a position to remove the dress code, you could consider relaxing it. Rather than smart suits and ties, dial it down to ’smart casual’. Test how it works for a few weeks, set up a workplace suggestion box and encourage feedback.
A feeling of increased relaxation at work is a likely outcome. And relaxed workers are more productive, as we like to remind our customers at Timetastic. Being happy and comfortable at work increases collaboration and creativity, and reduces the risk of stress and burnout.
And if it means nobody has to suffer through wearing a tight suit on a hot summer’s day again – even better.
Culture drives behaviour change
Personally, I’ve never found wearing a suit made me more productive.
Back when I was CEO of a telecoms company, our ‘dress code’ was laid out in a sentence: “Wear what you like, but be respectful of others – it’s an office, not a beach.” Simple.
In smaller companies it’s easier for cultural codes like this to work. People are more likely to be open with each other and raise issues – when you’re in close proximity to one another, it’s easier to become comfortable and open with each other.
So it’s more likely if you’ve a problem with someone’s clothing choices for the day, you’ll be able to raise it with them.
You’d hope to approach the situation delicately if someone wore something particularly revealing or distracting. Even then, how problematic can it be? If someone’s showing a bit more armpit than you like, can’t you look at something else – like your work!
You run the risk of being sexist or offensive if you comment about how someone’s clothing reveals their body. Most of the time it’s probably best to leave it unsaid – and if you absolutely have to bring it up, do it in private – not out there on the office floor.
Ditch the dress code, every day should be ‘casual dress day.’ Not casual in attitude – we all still have to work hard to create value for our customers and make our company a success. But casual in dress.
Letting employees dress how they feel comfortable makes a work environment feel nicer. Even if you’re running a high-performing, profitable company, you don’t need to follow the business herd and restrict yourself to monochrome outfits.
One clear thing I’ve learned as a CEO is, when you trust people to use their judgement, they become more loyal and dedicated to their jobs. That’s an attitude worth cultivating, I think.
So, let’s make every day casual day.
At least with some reasonable caveats, anyway. If you turn up in swimwear, you might get a friendly comment from me. But apart from that, you can wear pretty much what you want.
About the Author
Gary Bury is co-founder and CEO of Timetastic, an independent and profitable web app for managing time off work, used by thousands of companies around the world.