Cracking the Dress Code Dilemma

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Survey Results Show Employees Crave At Least Some Structure When It Comes to Dress Codes

Dress codes are, and always will be, a hot topic that gets fairly contentious in a hurry.

Employers need to spend considerable time pondering office dress codes---whether or not to have one, what is permitted/prohibited and how to implement it---and consider the kind of work environment and image to project. Depending on your company and your personality, there are many factors to consider. For instance, if you're opening a beachside surf and skate shop your dress code will likely be much more informal than the people in three-piece suits at Fortune 500 companies.

We surveyed 4,600 people about office dress codes and found that whether employees are donned in T-shirts and jeans or strictly formal attire, it's clear people everywhere are making assumptions about your employees---and by extension, you and your business---that relate to intelligence, professionalism and work ethic.

Make Your Dress Code Policy Clear

Many people who took our survey disagreed as to whether or not they like dress codes. Some feel it fosters professionalism and hard work, while others refuse to believe wearing jeans somehow detracts from your job performance.

But even though our respondents differed about dress codes in general, people on both sides agreed that uncertainty breeds confusion which can lead to serious problems.

More than 3 percent surveyed said they're not even sure if they have a dress code. So whether or not a company implements a dress code is actually secondary to making it clearly understood and enforcing it fairly.

"I do not know of an official dress code at my company, rather it seems to depend on who your particular manager is, and even then is only selectively enforced," said one person. Another agreed and said "Our dress code is nonexistent and essentially established within each department. Some people are wearing suits and others flip-flops. It's very haphazard and gives an unprofessional image."

Many Employees Want a More Structured Dress Code
The majority of people who took the survey said they are satisfied with their company's dress code policy. But after that, the results are surprising.

Nearly one-quarter of respondents said the dress codes in their workplaces are too lenient. Readers regaled us with horror stories involving low cut tops, ripped jeans, sandals and exposed tattoos and body piercings they deemed inappropriate for an office setting.

One respondent issued a cautionary tale and said "We let one instance go and then before we knew it, everyone was in flip-flops and stretch pants." And he wasn't alone in seeking strict wardrobe rules.

"I believe people who dress professionally tend to be more professional on the job," he said. "Dressing in jeans and a T-shirt does not exude professionalism, especially when you are seated in close proximity to an executive dressed in a suit."

I'm Telling HR on You!

If you've ever worked in an office setting, chances are you've dealt with at least one colleague who seems to have zero sense of decorum when it comes to appropriate dress. To that end, hundreds of people told us about employees wearing shirts displaying drugs, drinking and violence, skimpy mini-skirts, pajamas, revealing low-cut blouses and even some unorthodox body piercings.

Yet despite all the angst towards their dressed-down cohorts, only 14 percent of survey-takers has ever registered a formal complaint with human resources.

Additionally, just more than 22 percent of people said they've really wanted to tattle, but haven't because of office favoritism (the one dressing inappropriately is the boss' pet, or IS the boss) and fear of creating a hostile work environment.

"I didn't complain because I didn't want to be 'That Person' and be viewed as nitpicking on this specific individual. And nobody listens anyways," said one respondent.

Avoiding the type of office environment in which your workers feel they can't speak up about legitimate concerns could eventually trickle down and start impacting morale and the bottom line.

Everyone's Looking at You

It turns out you may have reason to be paranoid, because they are watching. And judging too. While employees might not be diming each other out to human resources for shabby dress, they're forming opinions and hostility is brewing.

The majority of respondents---56 percent---admitted they make assumptions about people at the office based on how they're dressed. And while kindergarten teachers taught us all not to judge a book by its cover, the cold reality of life in the modern workplace is a totally different animal. Unless you want an office full of resentment, gossip and backbiting, employers would be wise to head this problem off at the pass with a firm, established dress code.

Here are comments from some of our survey-takers:
"I might think someone who is dressed down for work might not be that smart."
"Men who are sloppy and women who show too much skin are viewed as junior."
"I think when people are poorly dressed for work they come across as not being team players and as not having respect for the workplace."

"Casual Friday" Still in Style

Despite slightly conservative leanings when it comes to dress codes, the majority of respondents still value one day a week when they can dress down.

"Casual Friday gives employees a chance to be a bit more relaxed and it is great for morale," said one woman. Another man agreed and said "It is nice to feel like we get a break from the normal day-to-day constraints."

However, some people said casual dress should not be allowed on Fridays when there are meetings with executives, or for customer-facing employees. Furthermore, approximately 6 percent of people said "Casual Friday" is actually bad for the office environment.

"Shouldn't a company want to come across as professional as possible regardless of the day of the week?" said one respondent.

As an employer, whatever you decide, make sure you tailor the dress code to the specific needs of the company and its mission.

Line in Sand Drawn Between Older, Younger Workers
You've heard it all before. Older workers wearing shirts and ties complaining about the latest crop of recent college graduates wearing tennis shoes, showing off too much skin and dressing in outfits more suited to a nightclub than a cubicle. Kids these days!

And while a certain amount of this generational friction is unavoidable, employers would be wise to keep it in mind and try to mitigate the fallout.

Fifteen percent of younger workers between 18-25 believe their dress codes are too strict. That number falls precipitously for older workers, which isn't surprising considering the average age of our respondents is 45. Also, only 3 percent of workers 18-25 have reported a co-worker's inappropriate clothing to HR. That number rises steadily for older workers, maxing out at 21 percent for people age 56 and older.

One logical explanation is older people have been in the workplace longer. But our survey clearly shows an increase in age brings about a definite drop in tolerance for those who don't dress appropriately at work.

Keep the wants/needs of both sides in mind when considering a potential dress code.


Dress Codes Play a Large Part in Job-Hunting

Everyone knows salary, benefits and potential for career advancement are just a few of the factors that determine whether or not candidates accept job offers. But according to our survey, job hunters are also looking very closely at dress codes when figuring out if they'll be a good fit.

More than half of those surveyed said a company's dress code is either very important or moderately important when it comes to accepting a job offer. That includes people on both sides of the dress code debate.

One person said he judges the productivity and seriousness of the company by how they handle the dress code, saying "A lax dress code reflects on the lax office work ethic." But another man said "If my potential future employer and co-workers are going to be more concerned about the kind of shoes I have or the suit I wear than the quality of my work, then I am much less inclined to want to accept a position there."


Know What Your Employees Want

If left to create their own ideal dress codes, the vast majority of those surveyed said they would opt for business casual. Although the exact definition of that term varied from person to person, generally it was described as "dress slacks or 'nice' khaki pants, a tucked-in button-down shirt and no sneakers."

"People are more comfortable with casual and they will produce more and be more efficient," one man said.

Another man agreed and said "Some companies put too much emphasis on the way a person dresses when they should be concentrating on how that person performs."

But 9 percent of those surveyed are still adamantly clinging to a strictly formal dress code in the office.

"A lady always wears hosiery," said one woman.

When It Comes to Dress Codes, Be Prepared

Employers don't have crystal balls and can't perfectly predict how employees will react if a certain dress code is implemented. But the one thing you do have control over is preparedness.

Make the dress code discussion a vital part of every job interview. If you have more of a formal dress code and you're interviewing the kind of person who swears he'd never thrive wearing a suit and tie to work every day, then it's important to realize at the outset he might not be the best fit, despite the glowing recommendations and accomplishments. Letting potential employees know about the dress code also gives them an idea of the company's atmosphere and general attitude, so there's no confusion down the road.

But most of all, trust your gut.

If you're constantly dealing with high-end clients and a formal image is a must, then there's no question about dress codes. But if you can get away with some comfort and some level of business casual, a more relaxed work environment could benefit everyone involved.

Most important, use common sense. And tell your employees to do the same. Dress jeans are one thing, but if he/she starts wearing a Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction tour T-shirt during office hours, it's time to step in and assert yourself.

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