It's a Simple Question:
"Does Dress Code Affect Productivity?"
AKA are "Dress Down Fridays" or going "Business Casual" a bad idea?
What's your view on dress down policies? The temptation is to link dress code to work ethic or flexibility. But this seemingly simple question polarises opinion. So what is the truth? Dress code discussions are emotive and can turn into a minefield. I will show you how you can avoid the mistakes that managers usually make when dealing with dress code. And how you can turn dress code into a win to improve the relationship with your staff and improve employee engagement.
FACT vs FICTION
On the face of it, these questions seem to make perfect sense. The problem is we can construct a valid argument for either side of the debate.
Meaning: People end up in confirmation bias. People select the arguments that support their point of view whilst discounting the other side. If this happens in your organization, the result will be similar to a political debate. Both sides get entrenched behind their point of view and the dress code question becomes a divisive issue between management and staff.
Employee-employer relationships will suffer and staff morale will decrease over a simple policy. This happens in almost every firm and people don't seem to learn from their past mistakes. For many people this started in their childhood with arguments over school uniforms and dress codes!
SIDE BOX: Where what you wear speaks volumes:
What can the way your employees dress tell you?
In general the smartness of attire matches the level of seniority. Looking for the boss in an unfamiliar office? Start with the best dressed person. This doesn’t mean that casually dressed workers are not diligent workers. But if you have a member of staff that starts dressing less formally, then you may have a staff member who is not engaged and has become unmotivated. I know that I dressed less formally at one of my old jobs when I wasn't happy in my job. Have you? Trying to fix the way they dress is not going to solve the problem. Find the root cause and address this.
Action: Have a look around your office – are there any dress codes that cause concern? (Note this isn’t about employees who are just expressing themselves or who are “comfortable” but engaged). This is an easy visual indicator for low engagement which is costing you productivity. This represents a retention risk and a staff member who isn’t happy. To me this sounds like a worthwhile intervention for the manager to do.
So if the logical argument is such a minefield, then where can we turn to for answers?
The behavioral scientists and economists will quickly give you their solution: Do a study on firms that have implemented a dress down policy to determine the effect. Once again what we’ll find is a range of confusing answers. Dress down policy increases productivity in some firms and decreases it in others.
And you have similar conflicting results for implementing vs. cancelling staff uniforms. And for implementing vs. cancelling a formal dress code.
Surveying staff won’t help either because you will get confusing responses. For every staff member that likes the simplicity and low cost of wearing a staff uniform, there is another one who does not like “feeling like they are still in school” or "the lack of individual expression".
Once again we've reached an impasse – logic can’t help us. And empirical studies are no help either because there’s no clear trend nor is there any guarantee that what has worked for someone else is going to work in your company. I did promise you an answer at the beginning of the article though and you will get it.
The fact that the data is all over the place should give us a clue. Like so many things, it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that is really important.
So what is important?
To answer that question, I’m going to refer to employee engagement, satisfaction and retention studies. The elements that are relevant to the dress code issue are:
- Flexible job conditions – the ability to do the job in the way that they choose.
- Acknowledgement – being made to feel like what they do is of value and that they are an important part of the organization. Usually this is perceived that staff desire praise. However that is a very narrow definition and I will show you how you can use the dress code policy to provide acknowledgement to your staff in a way that isn't about praise.
These are not the only drivers of employee engagement but they are a significant part of the total employee engagement equation.
How to use employee motivators to make a dress code policy. This method will increase employee engagement:
Where (any) policy is seen as top-down edict by management there is going to be resistance. Like I’ve said many times before, it’s not natural for people to like being told what to do. The dress code question usually arises when:
- Staff members start talking about wanting to dress down
- Management feels dress code is not to the standard they desire
- Policy setting processes like rebranding
Dress code discussions are a way of engaging employees. That's why if this question has not arisen then I think you should start it.
In the discussion about dress code encourage staff to be part of the discussion. Solicit their points of view. The power of this is that when you acknowledge their points of view which makes them feel like they are important (being genuine about this helps!). Giving employees the chance to be a part of deciding what the job conditions are, is much more powerful than stipulating job conditions.
Remember that flexibility is about perception. So it's less about actual job conditions than a feeling of power that they are able to change the job conditions. Flexibility and control drive high employee engagement.
Why you should initiate a dress code discussion:
This is a “free” way of engaging staff. Your cost in terms of money, time and effort is low. But you can generate a worthwhile increase to employee engagement. There are few things in business where you can improve staff engagement at such a low cost and effort. And in the scale of business policies, dress code is relatively unimportant. You have limited “ammunition” like this and you should use it carefully.
This is a simple illustration of a powerful concept that can be applied in many other scenarios.
Sum up: How you can use dress code to increase productivity:
That’s essentially the key (I have a fuller step-by-step process for you in a box below). How we dress on any given day does not have very much to do with how hard we work on that day. And what makes the difference is not the dress policy but how you go about establishing it. Managing employees is hard and most of the time it's not what you do but the way that you do it that makes all the difference. That's why I've made the www.boss.camp program. It will show you how to get better employee performance in just an hour a week.
Because I believe in providing actionable advice, this is my simple recommended process for a dress code policy change. But you can apply this to almost any policy:
- Check existing company policy – breaking the rules is not going to do you any favors.
- Engage your boss to the idea by explaining what you intend on doing, why you are going to do it and how. (I should mention that this sharing this article may help ;-)). If there is resistance then explain that it can also be done as a pilot project. This is especially important if you are trying to change existing top-down policy. If you will be breaking rules and you don’t get permission beforehand, this could be a career limiting move! I believe that sometimes we need to break a few eggs to make things happen.
- Stimulate the discussion by: communicating that management is reviewing dress policy. Actively solicit staff input on policy. Be sure that as many staff contribute their views as possible. Acknowledge those contributions (important!).
- Establish the “rules” for those situations where you would want people to do something different to the basic policy. For example when instigating a dress down policy you may want your staff to dress up for external meetings. Method: ensure the consultation discussion covers these topics so that you can ensure complete coverage. Remember that people are reasonable and logical and will usually come up with the “right” rules themselves. If they don’t, then you can carry on soliciting new suggestions until you find one that will work.
- Make and communicate the policy based on the input you received. Link staff input to end policy. There may be some “editing” by yourself in this phase but keep the ideas their ideas. People are much more likely to self govern rules they have established. Plus this is important for the feeling of acknowledgement and for the feeling of flexibility. Go to far and you will damage staff relations.
- This is an engagement, not a marriage: Establish that this is a pilot project and you will adapt it as necessary based on success. This may include cancellation. It is up to the staff to now prove that their new policy is a positive policy.
Common mistakes and wrong ways of changing policy:
Watching bad policy being made is like a slow motion train wreck – don’t make these mistakes:
- Dragging your heels on the topic until increasing staff pressure forces your hand and you capitulate. You will seem weak and staff will lose respect. Deal with the issue head on.
- Do the evaluation and decision making yourself. To be instituted as law. People want to contribute and they want a fair and open process.
- Subjugate management power on the issue. This is where many managers confuse the principle of consultative leadership. As manager you remain in charge of results and if a new policy has a detrimental effect to performance it’s your responsibility to fix it. Consultative leadership doesn’t mean that all decisions are group decisions. It means that points of view are solicited (or even voted on) and then the manager gets final decision rights to accept or reject the recommendations. This includes changing prior decisions. Explain upfront that you will be monitoring the effects and if there is a negative impact you will have to modify the policy. Explain that it’s up to the staff to make it work and it’s your responsibility to change it if the staff members don’t make it work
I hope you find these free insights and actionable tips helpful and inspiring. The best way to learn these skills is by doing one of the training modules and if you would like to learn more I would encourage you to take a course. This is how I support the creation of this content. Please see the side bar for course links or go to the training page to find out more.
Do you have any comments, questions or tips about dress code in the workplace? Help the rest of us out by sharing in the comments below.
Side Note: Motivate and Engage Your Staff Through One-on-Ones
Do you know that regular, high quality one-on-ones with your employees are the single easiest management practice. Do one-on-ones right and not only can you can take care of almost all your management responsibilities in one go but you will also:
- Improve employee engagement,
- Boost productivity,
- Build better relationships with your staff.
That's why I made a mini-course on one-on-ones (including a one-on-one template with a one-on-one meeting agenda) which will show you 3 Easy Steps 2 1 on 1's. What I expect you'll find is that you already know some of the content on some type of level but maybe you're not putting it into practice. This will help. As I say this is essential for new managers and helpful for experienced
If you’ve ever ridden the tube on a Monday morning you know that work isn’t working. We need to wake up now to find a better way. WWW.BOSS.CAMP is about finding a better way to make work work. The program includes topics such as:
- How to motivate employees,
- What are bad employee motivators,
- What you must do as a manager but isn't on your job description,
- How leaders get power.