A corporate benefit all companies can afford: Get rid of the dress code

I have a confession to make: sometimes when I have lots of work to do and I am going to be at my desk all day, I take off my shoes.  It’s just more comfortable for me and allows me to think more clearly then when I have dress shoes on.

Can you guess how many people in my office know this?  Zero.  Unless I walk around my office, or have somebody stop by my desk, nobody sees me for the entire day.  Many people I know are in the same sort of position as myself: they do not have many face-to face contacts with other workers or clients and yet they are still being forced to adhere to a dress code that is simply out of touch with today’s workforce.

When I began in the workforce in the late 1980’s, the code of dress was even stricter: Men had to wear jackets and ties and the women had to wear skirts and hose.  “Casual Friday” meant we got to ditch the jacket and tie for what we commonly wear to work now.  We could wear jeans to work a few days out the year but they were usually centered around some corporate event.

I remember there being a shift in the dress code around the middle 1990’s, but it wasn’t without a great deal of apprehension from the senior management of the company: What if somebody dresses inappropriately?  What if the employee’s start acting less professional?   What will our clients think?  After much hand-wringing they decided to change the dress code from suits/tie/skirt/hose to the casual Friday wear and jeans on Friday.  You can probably guess what happened next:


Business went on as usual: people wore the appropriate attire (the people who crossed the line on their choice of clothes turned out to be people the company didn’t want anyway), productivity continued and eventually the clients (and almost everybody else) changed their dress codes too.  The world did not end.  With this in mind, I say to the business leaders of the world: time to take the next step and get rid of the dress code completely.

I loved the show Mad Men.  It was like watching a live time capsule: set in 1961, the men wore suits and smoked and drank in their offices, demeaned their employees and delegated women to minor roles such as secretaries and hostesses (until of course, they got married and quit their jobs).  I asked my father if that was accurate and he confirmed it for the most part: he had never seen someone with a bar in their office where he worked, but he knew of others that had, yet otherwise it was spot on.  It was, he explained, the way it had always been.

As modern-day office worker, how many of the things from the Mad Men era survived?  Practically none (women still are not equal to men in business, but that’s another column).  Smoking is banned, nobody drinks in the office or at lunch any more, management is trained on how to get the best out of their employees without belittling them and there are much more opportunities for women.

Did the American economy collapse?  Of course not, the times simply changed and business changed with it; this is what I am suggesting should happen now.  With easy access to the internet, email and wifi you don’t even have to be in an office anymore, much less dress up, and the relationship between corporate workers is more virtual (the majority of people I interact with every day aren’t even located in my state).  So we are we holding up this pretense of wearing slacks equals productivity/professionalism?

According to an article on the Inc. website, the trend against work dress codes is coming and there is little anybody can do about it.

“Formality is breaking down–just think of Mark Zuckerberg in his hoodies and the explosion in flat organizations. Is this all for the better?  Formality is like a virus that infects the productive tissue of an organization.  When did you last hear a programmer or designer clamor to wear a suit to work? The order always come from the executives (followed shortly by a request for those TPS reports!).  In other words, it’s all about posture, not productivity.”

Case studies on successful organizations such as Google, Facebook, Apple and top creative agencies that have eliminated their dress code show they have not missed a beat with their productivity.  In a profile on Google by Fast Company, it noted “The search giant’s lack of a formal dress code means employees’ clothing choices run the gamut of buttoned-up button-downs accessorized with pearl earrings to jeans and T-shirts. But that hasn’t hurt productivity. In fact, while some staff liken its Garage innovation space to a cross between kindergarten and a classy law firm, Google is consistently ranked as one of the top best companies to work for.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban takes it a step further by stating that a casual dress code policy could be a benefit that their employees will love and does not cost them a cent.

“If you are a CEO, are there not better things your employees could spend money on than multiple suits, ties, dress shirts, dress shoes, dress socks, dry cleaning, and all the other associated costs ? Gee, no suits would be the same as giving your employees a tax free raise. Think that might make them happy ? Or do employees consider having to spend money on suits a perk?”

Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of Vayner Media, believes the issue of a office dress code and professionalism comes down to context:

“To say that professionalism is one way or the other is complete insanity. To a twenty-five year old startup guy or gal, professionalism is a hoodie and jeans. To a fifty-three year old Madison Avenue executive, professionally dressed is, at the bare minimum, a dress shirt and jacket. Context. And as these two worlds collide, you start getting a mix. Some people are wearing hoodies on Wall Street, and we do Formal Friday at VaynerMedia.

Over the next decade as these worlds come together, they will become all one and the same. Professionalism will be agnostic.”

There is no real reason for us to keep this up: if Steve Jobs could transform society by wearing jeans, a black turtleneck and Nikes everyday, why can’t people at other companies?  Is the wrapper on the gift more important than the gift inside?