Today, our growing social acceptance of individuality is mirrored in how people dress, both at home and at work. But workplace dress code is about a lot more than your employees’ personalities or the image your organization seeks to present. It might surprise you to know that both casual and traditional dress codes can either support or detract from the productivity at your business, depending on your industry, company culture, and the ages of your employees. What might work well for one company, even a competitor, might not be the best for your business. Instead of following normal trends, look towards the pros and cons that come with each dress code and what reflects the best for your own business.

The Benefits of a Casual Code

The Society for Human Resource Management 2015 Employee Benefits Survey showed that 36% of businesses allow casual attire at the office every day.1 This is an indication that the modern workplace is a relaxed, casual environment in many industries. One national survey shows that 41% of workers believed casual dress improved their productivity, with 51% saying that they do their best work when dressed casually.2 An article from smallbusiness.com even suggests that allowing employees to choose their own attire can boost morale, which in turn increases productivity and creativity.3

Benefits of Casual Dress Code

Laid Back vs. Tuned Out

Business coach Shontaye Hawkins points out that dressing too casually can have adverse effects, saying “when you wear flips-flops and shorts, you become less focused on work. It’s like you can’t wait to get off, and you’re thinking about everything outside of office versus work that needs to get done.”4 Hawkins also sheds light on how casual attire can negatively impact client relations—“You don’t want to lose a potential client or customer because they come on a day someone is wearing flip-flops and decide your workplace is unprofessional,” she points out. It’s important that if you do allow casual dress, you outline exactly what that means—jeans might be okay but not yoga pants, or maybe you want to define the difference between a sandal and a flip flop.

ROI of Traditional Business Wear

“All for one and one for all,” or so the saying goes. Strict professional dress codes put everyone on the same level. Many employees see dress codes as a vital part of the unity of a business. Traditional approaches can also eliminate distractions or potential conflicts. Appearance makes up a lot of our perceptions of others, and when there’s little room for a difference of opinion, there’s little room for negative perceptions. In a Salary.com survey, a surprising 25% of people said that their company’s dress code is too lenient, and another 56% said that they draw conclusions about their co-workers based on the clothing that they wear.5 Professional dress codes also inform the external perception of the company by clients, consumers, and industry peers of the professionalism the company maintains in all facets of their business.

Benefits of Business Dress Code

Conformity Cons

The worker-bee syndrome is one negative that can be created by professional dress codes. When a company gives their employees little room for individuality, they might find it harder to feel appreciated as an individual. Also, traditional business clothing can be quite expensive, so this kind of policy might put a financial burden on the lowest-paid employees. And just like a too-casual dress code at a law firm could make a bad impression on clients, a company in a more relaxed industry like marketing might find clients are intimidated by a formal dress code.

The Modern Office Dress Code

Setting Your Standards

These three considerations should help you determine what’s the right fit for you:

  1. Your industry. If all your competitors have one kind of dress code, adopting the opposite could be a good way to set yourselves apart to a certain kind of client. However, established market sectors like banking and law come with a set of expectations from clients, and if you or your employees don’t meet them, people might question your professionalism.
  2. Your clients. If your clients are hiring you as an advocate or representative, it’s important to remember your appearance represents them also, not just yourself.
  3. Your employees. How do your employees feel about the dress code? Ask them to complete a poll to gather a better understanding of what they would like to see. The answers might just surprise you.

The easiest way to ensure the dress code is understood by everyone and easily enforced is to write it down as a policy. Even casual businesses might want to set a standard for what’s considered casual and what goes too far. This might mean prohibiting t-shirts, especially holey or dirty ones and heavily used tennis shoes, and stating that clearly in writing means employees won’t feel singled out when they’re asked to comply.