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Letter to Leaders

On Dress Codes & Pornography

Focus on what your culture is and what you aspire it to be, and make sure your dress code matches that culture. Develop and enforce a policy that makes sense

Strange bedfellows, huh?  Dress Code and pornography?  The title of this post should make for some interesting Google searches.  But bear me out – it has a relevance for every business.

I’m sorry to report to those curious that most of this article is about corporate dress codes and not pornography.  (Read until the end – you’ll get there eventually).

What’s going on with dress codes these days?  If you read some experts, you’ll see that businesses are trending to a more formal dress code.  Other experts believe that a more casual dress code is here to stay.

What I’d say is, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing and focus on what your culture is and what you aspire it to be, and make sure your dress code matches that culture.  Develop and enforce a policy that makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is a 10 page list of what is or isn’t permissible.  And what else doesn’t make sense is not adapting to reality, cultural trends and what employees want to wear (remember, there are way more many jobs available than qualified employees: they can somewhat dictate to us what they want).

For three years, I worked for a large, publicly traded company that mandated suits on men – not just a shirt and tie, not just a coat-and-tie, but suits at all times – even when travelling on weekends.  That restriction provided me an impetus to start my own business in 2003; the first thing I did was put a sign in my new office: “There is no *&%$#@! dress code.” 

(It was part of a whole anti-corporate theme that I’d developed; I was tired of being told what and how to do things all the time).

Intellectually, the suit dress code made some sense.  The company is east-coast based, where there’s more formality expected than in California, where I was working.  But one day, marching through a dusty field to meet with the owner of a construction company in a dark blue suit, I felt completely out of place.  And the owner – in his jeans and mackinaw, looked at me like I’d stepped off the moon lander.  That’s when a dress code makes zero sense.

Today, I work closely with a CPA firm, and in every employee survey there are plaintive requests to loosen the dress code to include denim.  (The firm has what I’d call a modified business casual policy – no denim, but no ties, either.)  Employees – who work long hours during tax seasons – would appreciate the comfort of a more relaxed dress code.  The firm’s partners are concerned about what that dress code would look like to their clients who visit the office.  The clients skew conservative. Currently, the modification is “Denim Fridays”.

One of my favorite clients has about 55 employees in West Hollywood, California.  It’s not exactly a start-up – it’s 7 years old.  But they have a start-up mentality, and most of the employees are in shorts and flip-flops every day.  (Hey, it’s California).  They keep aligned with a youthful casual culture, and that dress code encourages younger employees to work and stay at the company.  I once took a client, a bank president, to that office.  I thought he was going to have a coronary.

It’s not what everyone else does – it’s what works for you.

Another client I’ve worked with is a law firm in San Francisco.  There was an uproar when some of the partners wanted to eliminate polo-style golf shirts, which were permissible in the dress code.  It turns out that one associate wore golf shirts every day that looked like they’d been washed a thousand times: wrinkled, collars curled up and basically not law firm appropriate.  But, as I pointed out, another lawyer wore golf shirts every day and they looked great – creases on the sleeves, ironed crisply – perfectly fine.  So, the issue wasn’t golf shirts – it was how they looked on everyone.  We spoke to the employee with the wrinkled shirts – he bought new shirts and took much better care of them after that.

Which gives rise to the pornography connection.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many lawsuits came to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding obscenity in movies.  And all the Supreme Court Justices would trek down to the theater to watch each movie and determine whether it violated the 1st Amendment as obscene.  Finally, it became ridiculous, and Justice Potter Stewart, frustrated that he could not define pornography in a case, said: “I know it when I see it”.

That’s exactly what should happen with dress codes.

So much time is spend writing these codes and even more time is spent counseling employees and having angst whether to bring it up at all – it’s a waste of time!  I’ve seen dress codes that are pages long, itemize every conceivable thing an employee can or cannot wear.

Here’s what a better solution looks like:


During the interviewing process, you’ve had occasion to see how our employees dress and therefore what are expectations of your dress and appearance should be.  And we hired you because we believe you understand our culture (and vice-versa). Therefore we expect you to dress and appear in keeping with those expectations and our culture.  If you have any questions about whether to wear something, please feel free to check with your manager or Human Resources before coming to work.  And we have the right to send you home to change if we believe something you wear is not keeping with our desired culture.

So it’s not an itemized list of what you can and cannot do.  It’s not a formal or informal dress code.  It lays out expectations and really places those expectations on the employee – not HR or management.

Look at your dress code.  Is it really something that works for you today, or is it as outdated as the person who says, “We’ve always done it that way?”


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