The View from HR

How you dress is still a common form of stereotyping in the workplace

July 28, 2012 

I am about to step in it. Those of us from the country know what that means.

What you wear to work (including fabrics, leathers, metals, fragrances, hairdos and inks) is the most visible thing you do. It will be seen, it will be part of the impression you leave and it will enhance or harm your business purposes. Maybe it is unfair, but how you dress is still a common form of stereotyping in the workplace.

In other words, what you wear is not all about you and your comfort. It is not all about your freedom of expression or lifestyle. It is a sandwich board you carry that speaks loudly to the people you meet and work with each day.

Don’t get me wrong. A dress code does not mean “formal.” I personally dislike formal environments, and all my neckties are old.

It does mean that your workplace has needs, purposes, customers, vendors, visibilities, traditions and standards that dictate what you wear within some range. Stepping outside that range is a needless risk to first and lasting impressions. Some people can successfully be an outlier because of personality and other factors; however, most of us cannot.

Affects behavior

Employers sometimes publish “dress codes.” A code is a law or regulation. Laws are used to bring behavior into an acceptable range for the betterment of a society. Start thinking of dress codes as having a societal (workplace) purpose rather than just another way to control behavior. Start looking at these codes as minimums to help you succeed.

What you wear also affects how you behave. Like Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

I know a few managers who enjoy writing and enforcing dress codes, but they are odd folks. Most of us would rather take a dip in hot oil than write one, discuss one or, heaven forbid, enforce one. Would you want to be in charge of enforcing the difference between capris, skimmers, crop pants, ankle pants, pedal pushers, clam diggers, city shorts and culottes (do they still make those)?

Legitimate purpose

None of this should limit an employer from deciding “anything goes” in their workplace. None of this means any particular style of dress is bad (except way too much fragrance or skin). It does mean your workplace has a purpose that should be supported by its environment while respecting important cultural or religious differences.

Managers, think hard about real needs of the business and those it serves. Is your dress code outdated and overly limiting, or does it meet a legitimate purpose by supporting those business needs?

Employees, if I offered you a simple way to improve the impression you make at work with all types of people, would you try it? Make good appearance decisions that fit your workplace and save most of your self-expression for home, the ballot box or the school board meeting.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro. CAI helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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