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What is in a Dress Code?

25/04/18
Posted by: Christopher Ruddick

Dress codes are commonplace across multiple industries and roles. Some have been in place for centuries, others can be denoted as relatively fresh in some working minds. In fact, 79% of the UK workforce is subjected to some level of dress code policy.

Typically, dress codes fit into one of seven distinct forms or levels:

  • Business
  • Relaxed business
  • Smart Casual
  • Uniform provided
  • No Dress Code
  • Simply Undefined

Now some of these have only become common in recent time, to some extent not even existing for more than 20 years, for example the rise of Smart Casual or elements of uniform being provided.

For many the biggest rise has been of a Smart Casual dress code.

This rise has caused problems as many companies with such policies have subtly different definitions, for example some not allowing denim, where some definitions would allow a smart non-torn denim.

Our industry specialism of residential property has a range of clients with diverse approaches, but many still seem to be resistant or reluctant to change with the times.

Clearly within certain roles or particular points, such as on a construction site, then health and safety requirements will inform some level of dress code and take priority.

However, if we consider the recruitment industry as another industry, then usually the image pushed into the front of many will be one of the hideous pinstripe suited and booted recruitment consultant.

Even my own personal experience with the ‘smart casual’ format of dress code is one of an “awkward”, almost “unhelpful” level of dress where you are never quite sure if it meets the requirements, unless someone defines the limits. Even utilising the power of Google seeks to only re enforce the problem with such a dress code.

When we hold interviews at TDM, we invite candidates to dress in smart casual wear, mirroring our office wear, however it is still more common than not for a substantial number of interviewees to turn up suited and booted, brushing smart casual to the wayside.

Here at TDM to get an idea of people’s previous experience of dress code we did a survey. In a significant majority (82% were subject to a strict, formal dress code) it only sought to push the image of recruitment being one of a strict diet of a suit and tie for men and smart business wear for women.

The other question we asked our team is what they preferred or would like to see in a dress code?

The answer, again with a significant majority, at best informal or no dress code at all. Unless you are going out to see clients, what really is the need for a formal dress code?

Lucky for the team at TDM then there is no dress code, with a few exceptions, but day to day there is no dress code! Hot weather here at TDM means a diet of summer wear to keep cool. Today alone we have six people in shorts. That is of course if the team are not utilising their unlimited holiday….

But, that does not really answer the wider working job market question of what is in a dress code?

If we focus on the younger generation a recent survey of 2000 adults between 18-24 by Style Compare produced some interesting results, but the biggest highlight was that 18% of those respondents would not work for an organisation with a formal dress code. These are surprising statistics, considering that young adults have typically spent more than a decade in school uniform.

So why do we implement a strict dress code at work?

I did it, so they must as well!

Some might consider that rather bluntly because they had to do it in younger life, that others coming in must suffer (unfortunately in many cases these are usually younger generations).

An interesting, if slightly, “brutal” way of thinking. Luckily the number of these types are in a minority, and I think many would agree it as an unfair point of view and would put many in the “out of touch” camp.

Work Performance

Another, more “valid” concern among many employers, understandably, is the affect of dress code on work quality, quantity and performance.

Interestingly the survey results found that such guidance in 61% of respondents had no impact on their work. In fact, 45% of respondents said they would work just as well with no dress code at all.

Equally another point to consider is days such as dress down Friday. Does this have any really productivity issues? Unlikely. Does the dress down code then go too far the other way where people take advantage of the one day a week?

The other statistical highlights in this area were:

  • 11% say they would work better if the dress code at work was more relaxed
  • 15% that the dress code would influence their career choice

Organisation Perception/Leadership Perception

Defenders of the strictest dress codes have a belief that it will cause perception issues amongst the public or internally in regard to leadership.

Does it really impact on the wider market perception? Previous history has shown that it did not impact on Goldmann Sachs when they needed to attract more engineers in Silicon Valley. If anything, the share price increased following the change.

Starbucks has allowed its workers to show a little more personality with hats and hair colours. Has that impacted on your morning coffee? Unlikely.

What about leadership? Again, it might seem obvious to look towards the largest companies, but has a dress code (or lack of) impacted on their ability to be seen as a leader (or even wider influencer)?

Just name-dropping leaders such as the late Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and many others who regularly have (or did) not conform to any form of business dress. I doubt anyone could deny though that many respect them for what they have achieved, irrespective of what they were wearing which few will remember.

Corporate Image, Unity and Team Work

Some companies may wish to push a viewpoint of corporate image, unity and team work.

In fact, within certain sectors seeing branded clothing (or even just PPE) would be considered the norm.

This reasoning is perfectly understandable, and I think for many would be considered perfectly acceptable.

However, obviously there can be numerous issues surrounding ensuring they are suitable for all parties, have been tested under enough conditions and seasons. Furthermore, for certain areas it would be considered a costly area should there be higher staff churn as well as the costs of testing such clothing.

Tattoos, Piercings and Hairstyles

Not a reason, but an area of controversy for many when developing modern dress code policies.

This area for many years was fairly simple, no tattoos or piercings or wild hair colours/styles.

But, recent time has seen a softening with a number of companies diversifying and allowing their employees to show more personality with tattoos and occasionally piercings being more acceptable within policies, alongside less standard hair colours.

Personal Impact

A less obvious area, but one that has increasingly been highlighted following the issues at PwC where Nicola Thorp refused to wear high heels that formed part of a dress code.

The flipside was a call centre worker where an employer had a no shorts policy, his get around? Wear a skirt to work, leading to the policy being ditched.

Both show potential issues surrounding gender politics that having dress codes can bring up.

Again, the recent survey reflects such issues for some, with 12% of the UK workforce considering leaving a job because of a strict dress code, such as having to wear a full face of makeup or perfectly groomed hair for a day in the office.

Location

In open honesty this one area even as the author of this piece I had not considered.

But, the survey produced some results in this area of great interest:

  • 19% of Liverpool respondents said they worked in an office where ties and suits were mandatory. 10% above the national average
  • Bristol was the most relaxed with 21% open to anything being acceptable
  • London was representative of the national averages

Conclusion

There are numerous views, studies and options available as to whether a dress code is an important policy to have in place.

For many workers a dress code of some description is still clearly the norm, if not an obvious expectation when joining.

Additionally, a majority are still subject to either the strictest or more of the smart, as opposed to casual end of the dress code spectrum (even if such policies simply causes more confusion amongst employees).

However, it is also clear that there is a degree of generational thinking which has possibly restricted any change in thinking to make the dress code more casual than smart.

Ultimately though, it works for us here at TDM having no dress code, bar the few times that more smart dress is needed by the team. The flexibility offered here in actual fact means that no one goes too far with casual clothing – we never see full tracksuits or hot pants in the office, no one dresses looking like they have just rolled out of bed!

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