Dressed to Impress: Is it time for managers to embrace off-the-cuff employee fashion at work?

09 October 2017 -

Dress CodeLooking for an innovative way to engage and retain your top talent? Then loosen up on dull, tired workplace uniforms, otherwise you could find your staff heading for the exit door

Jermaine Haughton

Some workplace dress codes are simply unavoidable (and rightly so).  A construction worker without a hard hat is a health and safety danger, while a clown entertainer will probably struggle to find work and credibility without a bushy red wig, long floppy shoes and a red nose.

In other office-based careers, often in professional services, technology and creative industries, there is arguably less need for a specific dress code, but some organisations enforce them nonetheless.

Younger people, however, are generally less comfortable conforming to this norm, and more employers are now giving staff greater freedom to dictate their own presentation and self-image at work. This increasing influence of millennials on management has led to a softening of the once-fundamental dress code practices, and the promotion of a more casual approach to office attire.

In recent years, major corporations such as JPMorgan Chase and IBM have embraced and accepted “business casual” attire to match the laid-back dorm-room culture of the tech startup scene, which has been poaching their top talent for years.

And employers who ignore this trend risk losing great employees, as a nationally representative study of 2,000 UK adults by Style Compare reveals that more than one in ten people have considered quitting their job because of a strict dress code.

Despite an equal number of women and men being subject to business-style dress codes, men are 34% more likely than women to quit their job because of what they must wear. Some 79% of the UK’s workforce are subject to some sort of dress code and 12% of adults on average - and 17% of those aged 18-24 - have considered quitting their job over the employer’s dress code.  

People working in the energy sector (32%), science and pharma (31%) and IT sector (29%) are the most likely to resign due to dress code requirements, the research found.

Jonny Challenger, founder of Style Compare, urges business to examine why they have dress codes in the first place.

"As our study shows, the vast majority of adults see little benefit in office dress codes and many resent being told how to dress,” he said. “People will tolerate resentment for as long as they have no choice, but as the data shows, when people do have a choice, they often choose to work elsewhere.

“Companies and even entire industries are alienating people due to outdated notions of what is appropriate for work.”

The study shows that the older employees are, the less likely they are to consider leaving their job due to dress code concerns. Only 7% of 55 year olds and older, and 9% of 45 to 54 year olds would have considered quitting their job because of the dress code. By contrast, 17% of 18 to 24 year olds and 16% of 25-34 year olds have considered quitting their job due to being forced to adhere to a specific dress code.

In fact, one in five (20%) 18-24-year-olds will avoid jobs that have strict dress codes.

So, with the changing perspectives that younger generations are bringing into the workforce, and accompanying shifts in other areas of work, from flexible working to instant messaging, is it time for bosses to show similar flexibility to work clothing?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a prominent expert in occupational health, believes so, as he warned businesses with strict dress codes about the psychological impact of enforcing them.

"Office dress codes can and often do discriminate against women, men, disabled people and gender non-conforming people,” he said. “They cause anxiety, discomfort and ultimately - as the research suggests - they can make people want to leave their job. All of this for negligible, if any, benefit to the employer.

"Strict policies have only persisted so far due to the attitudes of senior leadership, who grew up with the idea that wearing a suit and tie to work was the only way. There's scant evidence that dress codes have a positive impact on well-being, productivity or perceptions of an organisation.

"If dress codes did have a meaningful impact on productivity, why sacrifice productivity 20% of the year with dress down Friday? Organisations should trust people to dress how they please. If someone is smart enough to do the job, they're most likely smart enough to dress appropriately without being told what to wear."

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