Does dressing smart equal working smart?

A third of workers feel judged by what they wear in the office, and around half (47%) wear a uniform to work, according to a recent study by clothing retailer, Banana Moon.

The survey of 2000 UK workers also found that almost a third (29%) said they struggled to find clothes that were suitable to wear to work. Understanding what was meant by smart/casual dress codes were thought to be part of the problem.

So could a more regimented dress code be the answer or is such a thing vastly outdated and inappropriate in today’s workplace? Furthermore, how easy would it be to come up with a dress code that didn’t exclude or offend someone?

Sexist policies

The recent case of Nicola Thorp, for example, the receptionist who was sent home on her first day at PwC for wearing flat shoes and told to come back with heels, shows just how badly such policies can reflect on companies. More than 152,000 people signed the petition to support Ms Thorp and the subsequent investigation revealed a number of allegedly ‘outdated and sexist employment practices,’ such as women being told to undo the top buttons on their shirts.

Emma O’Leary, employment law consultant for the ELAS Group says employers should firstly consider if their dress codes are fair and equal to all employees. “It’s clear that there is still a sexist attitude in some circles when it comes to dress codes, and not just here in the UK,” she notes.

President Trump is a case point. Earlier this year, he caused an outcry when he told female staff in his administration that they need to always ‘dress like women’. “While there is nothing wrong with requiring employees to be smartly dressed, there cannot be separate rules for men and women and sexist attitudes such as this belong firmly in the past,” says O’Leary.

What should be considered?

Dress code should be balanced with considerations such as health and safety, not just in the workplace but also for the person wearing the item of clothing, says O’Leary. “You wouldn’t, for example, expect someone to wear a tie around fast moving dangerous machines.”

Dale Williams, managing director at Yolk Recruitment, says, however, that smart work attire is synonymous with professionalism. The image of the bespectacled accountant in the grey suit, for example, may still be prevalent. “Finance is an environment where you may routinely have to interact with clients and business partners, so it makes sense to make sure you look as presentable and polished as possible,” Williams notes.

Smart or casual?

Casual dress can, says Williams, suggest a casual approach. “And while that’s fine for some industries, such as the creative sector, I do think clients expect a certain level of professionalism from the people who help them manage their finances.”

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that there really is ‘no one size fits all’ approach when it comes to business attire, according to Williams. Employers should opt for a sensible dress code and set out what is and is not expected from an employee in different circumstances rather than a strict code for everyday wear.

Flexibility

“Communicating to employees what’s expected of them is essential, and my advice would be to keep your dress code flexible, occasion or task appropriate and set clear parameters with examples so there can be no misinterpretation,” Williams says. “For example, it should set out how employees should present themselves during a client meeting, a day in the office or on a dress-down day.”

Geraldine Joaquim, organizational consultant and hypnotherapist at Mind Your Business, says dress codes are important because they impart group identity, which goes back to our prehistoric past. “Dress codes go back to our caveman days when we needed to fit into the group in order to survive,” she says. “If we didn’t fit and got kicked out of our tribe we risked death by starvation or being hunted by a predator so it was a life or death issue.”

Survival techniques

All though, says Joaquim, we no longer have the same survival needs we still have the same fundamental, primitive need to belong. “It is something that social media taps into as we constantly measure ourselves up against our peers: should I make friends with them because they are strong and can increase my chances of survival, should I dress like them to blend in,” she says.

Having a ‘uniform’ helps give us a sense of belonging and identify with our group, says Joaquim.  “It can also be an ‘armour’ we use to present ourselves to the world, often having a work persona (in the suit) and changing into the home persona with a different wardrobe,” she notes.

Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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