Swarms of black fabric are a typical scene during the morning commute in New York City but suits might be unheard of in a West Coast office. While regional and industry differences abound, most offices today would use the ever elusive “business casual” to describe the company’s dress code. However, a recent Inc.com article advocated ditching the company dress code altogether. Janine Popick, founder of email marketing company VerticalResponse, argued “talented people are as diverse as the clothes they wear.”
While VerticalResponse had positive experiences from ditching the dress code, these benefits rely on the assumption that other companies share the same culture. Company culture is more than the clothes employees wear. Ditching the dress code worked for her company because it suited an overall laidback culture and fell in line with the company’s values. We can use this brash move to teach us how embracing our company’s values can direct company culture and lead to some of the same creative success Popick saw.
Here are responses to Popick’s five reasons, and how they can translate to a boost in company culture without ditching the dress code:
1. Popick saw her employees getting creative after the company eliminated the dress code.
In reality, this was just already creative employees using the removal of a dress code to impose new rules that better suited their personalities. The choice to have “great shoes Friday” and other themed days is a reflection of the company’s values, not a direct result of ditching the dress code. The office does not have to be an arid place if your employees or company’s values promote a different environment. In fact, your office should promote the same values your company supports so that clients can see consistency from office to product or service.
2. Employees at VerticalResponse drove company culture by wearing their logo’d hoodies everywhere.
Not everyone likes hoodies, a garment that rose to popularity with the millennial generation and is reminiscent of high school sports or casual weekends. This is a prime example of how the company culture at VerticalResponse responded positively to the dress code changes but other companies might not. This doesn’t stop other organizations from using products (or even hoodies) to endorse their brand. Coffee mugs or even pens are a practical but still professional way to show off the brand. More traditional companies can get involved with recreational activities outside of work and, yes, wear the hoodies then.
3. Employees felt more comfortable at work when they had more autonomy in clothing choices.
Unless you work in certain manufacturing or service industries, rarely do dress codes equate to uniforms. The very definition of business casual allows for employees to include some personality and choice in what they wear. Listen to your employees and allow for personal expression with desk decorations or themed events. Completely eliminating the dress code can make the job too much about individual expression, a dangerous path that is bound to crash with company goals and values.
4. Popick wrote “No one judges colleagues for what they’re wearing.”
This assumes employees will only interact with like-minded individuals and understanding clients. People might judge each other more now that there is no dress code as an excuse for clothing choices. Employees will also establish their own dress code, creating clear divisions between those who feel the need to dress up and those who show up to work in jeans. Popick ran into a fumble when an engineer showed up in a bathrobe. Imagine a business meeting where a client is in a business suit meets this bathrobe-clad employee. The client could naturally assume the engineer is not as serious about the project.
5. The stress of “picking the right outfit” dissipated.
No boundaries can actually create more stress. A dress code helps simplify the options. Unless the office dress code calls for runway ready, a dress code can help employees settle into a routine that avoids having to worry about what to wear each day. Having a dress code also creates a mental distinction between work and relaxation. Clothes signify the purpose of an activity.
Ditching the dress code worked for Popick’s company because of pre-existing company culture. Her employees embraced the lack of a formal dress code because it fit well with the company’s values. Ultimately, dress codes are a public expression of company culture. Eliminating the dress code does not have the same chance for success in most industries, but it is an extreme example of how we can listen to employees and use company values to guide company culture.
How would ditching the dress code fare in your office?