Should You Have a Dress Code for Your Employees?

A Walmart employee adhering to the company's new dress code Julio Cortez / AP Images

For some businesses, having an employee dress code is integral to the culture and values of the company, whereas, for others, it is an outdated and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Therefore, within your organisation, you will have to create a policy on what the expected dress code will be. While clothing may be low on your list of many priorities, it's worth taking the time to outlay your position, as your dress code – as with most workplace regulations – comes with its own unique advantages and disadvantages.

To explore them, and to underline the importance of an employee dress code – whatever it may be – we've outlined a few of the key benefits and drawbacks.

Main Types of Employee Dress Codes 

Before getting into the various pros and cons of what employees are expected to wear in the workplace, it's first essential to understand the different defined types of dress codes. It is generally accepted that there are four standards, in order of professionalism:

Business Formal: Also known as boardroom attire, business formal is usually the dress code of choice within high-level corporate firms. While there is little room for colour or expression, formal businesswear says a lot about status and position.

Business Professional: Similar to business formal, business professional is still viewed as conservative and traditional, but with more license for colour and accessories. 

Business Casual: Worn by many office workers across Europe and North America, business casual allows employees to show off their personality while still looking chic and relaxed. 

Casual: Consisting of the jeans and trainers approach, this dress code is usually found within younger startups. It allows employees to wear what they want and feel at ease while working.

Of course, certain industries will dictate a dress code; if you are running a professional services or legal firm, for instance, then it's generally expected by clients and investors all across the wider industry to dress formally. This doesn't mean that there isn't room for disruption, however; businesses are always looking at ways in which they can flip workplace conventions and appeal to younger generations of employees.

Alternatively, some companies eliminate the dress code question altogether by issuing their employees uniforms. Sometimes this is for safety reasons, such as for those working in labour-intensive roles or who require protection in their working environment (such as factory, construction and manufacturing workers), but often this can be as a reflection of the company's culture.

For instance, you might want to issue your staff branded t-shirts which they are encouraged to wear, maybe with your company's logo or vision statement emblazoned upon them. Depending on your industry, how your employees dress might even be a definitive brand statement; airline attendants are an excellent example of a profession where uniform and appearance are heavily entwined with brand identity.

The Benefits of an Employee Dress Code

Regardless of which direction you choose to pursue, everybody needs to be on the same page. It provides a sense of unity and togetherness that encourages cohesion and collaboration, and allows everybody to know where they stand.

This extends throughout the company, as well – at all levels. For example, apart from official appearances, Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is regularly seen working in casual attire. Indeed, Zuckerberg – like many successful entrepreneurs – doesn't only dress casually; he wears the same clothes every day, saving himself one less decision to make. While it may sound trivial, your employees will benefit from this approach (it's also a handy lesson to take away for yourself, too).

The choice of dress code can also dictate the tone of the workplace. For example, if casual attire is encouraged, then this translates into how people approach their job. They might feel more comfortable raising ideas or points, or taking a less conventional approach to problem-solving. Conversely, if you implement a business formal dress code, then people may be a lot more aware of the hierarchical structure of the company and retain from deviating from the status quo. Depending on your industry, your leadership style, and how you want your employees to engage, your dress code can say a lot.

If you decide to issue company t-shirts or uniforms, you can – as mentioned – boost your company's branding. Whether it's the baristas within your cafe business, the drivers within your trucking business, or the software engineers within your tech startup, not only do you have a workforce engaging with the company's brand, but you also have free advertising when your employees are out on their lunch break or commuting to and from work.

The Downsides of an Employee Dress Code 

Like anything with benefits, employee dress codes come with a few disadvantages. For starters, not everyone will enjoy being a replica of the person sitting next to them, especially if your business operates in a creative industry.

Sometimes, practicality can be an issue, too. Your dress code might not take into consideration employee comfortability, such as women having to wear short skirts or high heels. It even has the potential to result in reputational backlash or legal action, as was the case with PwC receptionist Nicola Thorp in 2016. Employees can only do their best work when they feel physically comfortable, so take this into account before enforcing a dress code.

What Do the Studies Say?

Potential employees are becoming increasingly sensitive as to whether a company they are considering has a dress code or not. Indeed, the presence of a particular dress code may even be a deal-breaker for some candidates.

2016 study by Stormlinegear indicated that around 61% of job seekers would overlook an employer if a dress code was part of the joining requirements, or, at the least, have a negative perception of the business. Meanwhile, 80% of respondents questioned the usefulness of an employee dress code, with nearly 61% stating that they would be happier and more productive if allowed to dress as they please. 

Many other studies have also made connections between employee dress codes and productivity, suggesting that, in most instances, a casual dress code is the most preferable. 

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An employee dress code can act as a useful means of furthering your internal company culture and your external brand; however, it can also be off-putting to some employees based on what the dress code entails, resulting in lower productivity and higher turnover.

Ultimately, a lot depends upon your industry. As a small tech startup, it's unlikely that your staff will want to turn up for work in three-piece suits, while, conversely, if you run a small law firm, then your corporate clients probably won't appreciate your team turning up for meetings in jeans and a t-shirt.

Don't forget to consider the input of your employees themselves, either. By giving them a say on the matter, this suggests that you care about their comfort and their happiness, which can have a positive effect on engagement, productivity and retention. Deciding out of the blue to suddenly impose strict dress regulations can have a detrimental impact, especially if you can't justify your decision.

What do you think? Should employees be subject to dress codes, or is it an outdated concept? Let us know your opinion in the comment section below.