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Letter to Leaders

Show Me Your Dress Code and I'll Tell You Your Culture

I’ve never been a fan of dress and appearance policies. I once quit a job because of it; see below. A few years ago, I wrote a post comparing dress codes to pornography. (Not surprisingly, it’s the most popular article in the 10 years I’ve been writing the blog).

Here is a quick rundown on why dress codes are stupid:

1. The temptation to make an exhaustive list of what is and isn’t acceptable is, well, exhausting. I’ve seen employee handbooks that track 10 pages of this stuff. It’s like every time a violation occurs, it needs to be memorialized in the handbook (helpful hint: no, it doesn’t).

2. There’s a sense of “we’ve always done it that way” or “our clients/customers expect it”. (Helpful hint: no, they don’t). The expectations of your end users are much more forgiving than you think. I was once on a sales call with one of my reps at a construction site. The company mandated suits for men (not just a coat-and-tie). The owner looked at me like I was nuts. We didn’t make the sale.

3. Defining a dress code is one of the biggest time sucks a leadership team can have. The problem is – dress code is a topic that everyone has an opinion on. It requires endless discussion, and it never ends. The simple act of getting a business to move to denim from business casual can takes years. My team spends more time developing or modifying appearance policies than any other area of employee relations. What a waste.

4. No one wants to enforce the dress code, except for the resident control freak. Once implemented, the dress code is something no one wants to enforce. Hey, I don’t want to tell a female employee her skirt is too short or her cleavage is showing. But every business has a control freak who will complain about everything. If a skirt is an inch too high, that person is demanding management talk to the employee.

And nothing good comes from it! Employees get embarrassed, or worse, upset. Other employees gossip about it, and leadership appears bewildered. Yet, if nothing is done about a violation, it’s a disaster – your employees will think that no rule is worth enforcing. Or you’ll get the inevitable “well he was wearing sneakers last week and you didn’t do anything about it.”

It’s a no-win situation.

About the job I quit. The restrictive dress and appearance code was a symbol to me of too many rules, and too little freedom. When I quit that job and started my own company in 2003, the first thing I did was put a sign in my office: “There is no *&^%$#@! dress code.” I never considered myself an anarchist before that. Now I try to have as few rules as possible, but I'm serious about the ones I have.


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