A dress code is a set of standards that companies develop to help provide their employees with guidance about what is appropriate to wear to work. Dress codes range from formal to business casual to casual, depending on the needs of the individual workplace and the customers it serves.
What Determines Workplace Dress Codes?
The formality of the workplace dress code is normally determined by the number and type of interactions employees have with customers or clients in the workplace. In workplaces that are frequented by clients who expect their counselors to exhibit professionalism and integrity, the dress is often formal. This includes law offices, financial consulting firms, banks, and some large businesses.
However, even these organizations are relaxing their dress codes. For example, banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. now allows its employees to wear business casual attire most of the time. In a visit to a law firm, it was noted that employees were dressed in business casual but most had jackets hanging on their office doors. This allowed them to work comfortably yet stay prepared for unexpected client interaction at any time.
Tech firms and start-ups generally favor casual dress, essentially what employees would wear to watch a sporting event or to grocery shop on the weekend. But, with 60% of millennials and employees in general favoring more casual dressing, employers who want to remain attract talent are offering casual dress as a perk.
Casual dress code is the dress code that most employees want. Competitive employers allow employees to dress casually for work.
In workplaces where some employees interact with customers or clients and others do not, an organization may choose to have two dress codes. A more casual dress code is normally adopted for employees with no customer or client contact. For example, manufacturing employees may dress casually, but front office staff might wear business casual work attire.
Depending on the organization, the dress code may be written in great detail, or in the case of a casual dress code, very little detail is necessary. Over the years, employees have seen a shift towards a more casual dress standard, even in industries that were previously very formal. Startups, in particular, tend towards a more casual dress code for their employees.
Why Dress Codes Are Important
In some professions, dress codes are so strict that clothing is called a uniform. You want everyone to know who the police officer is, for instance. If your company sends out plumbers or cable television installers, your employees are showing up in strangers' homes to do work.
A uniform identifies them as the person hired and not some random guy off the street who wants to look at your toilet. (Okay, not likely to happen, but still.)
Employees that work at clothing stores are often required to wear clothes the store sells. Target requires khaki pants and red shirts so that their employees are easy to spot.
In some jobs, dress codes are important because you are representing the company.
Fast food restaurants require a strict uniform so that it doesn't look like customers have wandered behind the counter.
For office jobs, the person who sits at the front desk might have a stricter dress code than the Chief Information Officer (CIO). This is because everyone who walks in off the street sees the receptionist, but you'll only see the CIO if you have an appointment.
Many client-based industries, like law firms and corporate accounting, have formal dress codes. No one wants to meet with a lawyer wearing a tank top and thigh-high shorts. A suit is the chosen outfit, for both male and female employees with pants suits for women becoming more common than in the formal dress years.
Have you ever heard the advice, “don't dress for the job you have; dress for the job you want”? It's perceived as good advice because appearance influences what people think of your work performance.
What About Casual Dress?
In a Robert Half Finance & Accounting survey, CFOs were asked their opinions about workplace attire. They confirmed that dressing up for work is going out of style: 61% said their employees abide by a somewhat casual dress code, khakis, and polo shirts or sweaters, for example. But, 13% of them said that jeans and T-shirts are the norm.
Work place attire greatly depends upon the type of culture the company has selected and developed.
As for the rest of the respondents, 4% said that attire at their offices is still very formal, as in suits and ties, and 21% describe the outfits worn to work as somewhat formal, either dress slacks or a skirt with a button-down shirt.
If you can trust television to be accurate, you can see the evolution of dress codes. Now? It's a much more casual world, and some famous heads of big companies dress very casually—Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, for instance, who seems to live in a hoodie.
Even companies that used to require strict, formal dress have largely softened. You're more likely to encounter someone in cotton pants and a casual shirt when you visit a Fortune 100 company than someone in a suit. This is generally known as business casual and can vary greatly from organization to organization.
Some companies allow jeans in a business casual office, others require pressed pants. Some business casual offices allow flip-flops while some require closed-toe shoes. (Of course, some closed-toe shoe requirements are for safety reasons instead of just dress codes.)
A good guide is to look at senior employees and use them as a guide. If the VP wouldn't wear a mini skirt, you probably shouldn't either.
Even if your company has no dress code, you still need an internal one. Sloppy is never appropriate—even if your job is feeding pigs. Don't push limits. If your dress code allows sleeveless shirts, don't push it to spaghetti straps.
Legal Requirements for a Dress Code
Companies can generally decide how they want their employees to look, with some very important exceptions. First, the dress code can't discriminate. Men and women need to have similar standards.
Second, the dress code has to allow for religious accommodations if they are reasonable. Employers need to accommodate an employee whose religion requires them to keep their head covered or to wear a religious necklace unless there are extreme circumstances.
If you're writing your company's dress code, it's ideal to double-check with your employment attorney before implementing it as policy.