Insights

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Suitably Attired: The Future of "White Collar" Work

During the 1500’s Queen Elizabeth I passed new laws relating to dress code, ensuring that people across the social spectrum dressed according to their rank, with the aim of limiting frivolous spending, and creating a distinction between classes. [1]

Fortunately we are no longer legally compelled by such societal dress codes, but to a lesser extent they remain unconsciously a part of everyday life. In the professional environment, dress codes have evolved dramatically, with recent news bringing the issue to the fore. Members of Parliament are no longer required to wear ties whilst in the House of Commons. A large professional services firm sent an employee home for violating a dress code that required client facing female staff to wear heels.

Should what we wear really matter?

The Rules

Legally, in the U.K. employees should be treated equally, and dress code should not be more onerous for one gender.

If employers wish to adopt a requirement for a neutral appearance, they need to have good reasons and it should be applied to as few customer-facing roles as possible.  Before considering dismissal, employers should endeavour to find alternative, non-customer facing roles where their employee will not be negatively impacted by the dress code.[2]

Unconscious Bias

We are all human, and we make judgements and assumptions unconsciously. A sleek dress code may give the impression to clients that we will handle their business in an equally polished and professional fashion as we appear. Individuals will have different interpretations of dress code: what one individual views as professional, others may view as stuffy and outdated. All of these conclusions being drawn without even a conversation! Developing an awareness of this inherent bias will make us more considerate of what our appearance may mean to clients.

Internally however, allowing superficial judgements such as dress code to determine our judgements on performance is dangerous. Education through training will enable to hold much more considered judgements of our colleagues, based on real performance, not superficial perception.

Attracting Talent

Dress code feeds into the organisational culture and undoubtedly will impact talent attraction. From start-ups to well established businesses, there has been an evolution.

Twinings, one of Britain’s most established brands proclaims:

“You won’t find a formal dress code at Twinings (except in certain manufacturing areas) – you really do bring yourself to work. We respect individuality and encourage a relaxed, casual atmosphere; our people feel more comfortable interacting with each other and having the conversations they need to get things done."

Even investment banking, a sector traditionally associated with conservative "suited" dress codes has recognized the need for a change of pace. Goldman Sachs recently relaxed their code, with the aim of attracting more software developers and engineers who they were losing to technology businesses with more casual cultures. Banking staff however will still adhere to traditional dress code.

The trend towards authenticity in the workplace has been championed by millennials and Generation Z. A recent survey has found that 10% of employees have considered quitting over company dress code, with those aged 18-24 feeling most strongly about the matter[3].

The creation of a culture of inclusion and increased fluidity in the market is disrupting an industry standard, and a lack of conclusive evidence on the correlation between dress code and productivity makes it difficult to justify stringent codes.

The Advantages of Non-Conformity

Whilst there is evidence to support those who slightly violate a dress code are subject to negative attributions about their professional work, there is surprising evidence about those who clearly and deliberately violated dress codes.

“The Red Sneaker Effect”, a Harvard study, found that outright violation of normal dress codes can lead to a perception of a higher status.[4]  The study which focused on academic professors, found those with overtly unconventional style were perceived as more successful. Indeed they were seen as more independent thinkers and better leaders, respected for their authenticity. In the technology world, CEO’s like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg are often cited for their non-conforming dress (Not to mention the latter's arrival to a venture capital pitch in pyjamas!).

There is an important message in here for companies who require a formal dress code for clients - non-conformity and authenticity has the potential to have a greater impact than a traditional office code.

Conclusion

We know “bringing yourself to work”, and an ability to be authentic is becoming increasingly important and allows companies to hire top performers. The next wave of will inevitably be within professional services, tapping into the value of personal, rather than professional brands. Clients will perceive off kilter dress code in positive light, attributing a sense of trustworthiness and authenticity to the individual, and creating a competitive advantage.

Make sure you are suitably attired.

For more information please contact Maria Nally.

  1. www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126628.html
  2. www.foxwilliams.com/news/1301
  3. https://www.stylecompare.co.uk/news/office-dress-code-driving-away-talent
  4. www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/The%20Red%20Sneakers%20Effect%202014_4657b733-84f0-4ed6-a441-d401bbbac19d.pdf.