But honestly, I don’t think most organizations realize this. They choose their dress code based on some vague understanding of WHY the code is required. I hear that we want a “professional atmosphere” or are concerned that certain items of clothing are “unprofessional.” Um, okay. But what does that really mean? And who gets to define it?
Because I know for a fact that my previous boss (a former Ambassador) would not have accepted someone coming into work with a suit jacket, suit pants, collared shirt, BUT NO TIE—yet such an outfit is a staple for companies today with very formal dress codes. And don’t get me started on the definition of “jeans” (if you pay $200 for them, and that keynote speaker you hired was just wearing them, can they really be called jeans?).
And before you start debating the no-tie thing or the jeans thing—stop. The deeper you get into that conversation the more folly it becomes. There is no right answer once you get into the details. It’s all debatable. And trying to figure out whether something is a sweater or a blouse is a huge waste of time, because it’s avoiding the underlying question: what purpose does your dress code serve? Or, put another way, how does your dress code drive the success of your organization.
That is what culture is supposed to be about: driving success. You don’t choose a culture because it’s cool. You choose a culture for the same reason you choose your specific employees—because you think that having it/them is more likely to make you successful in the long run. So how does your dress code drive success?
The American Society for Surgery of the Hand has its office in downtown Chicago, and their dress code may surprise you. It is literally two words:
That’s it. Don’t come to work naked, please. When I was there doing research, the CEO proudly pointed to an employee wearing shorts and a Blackhawks jersey and asked me to guess his title/level in the organization (it was the Director of Finance). But here’s the rub: the reason the CEO chose this policy was strategic. He believes that if you design an organization intentionally around the needs of employees, then they will give you back unbelievable productivity. That’s also reflected in the design of the office, and the fact that job descriptions are customized to the individual (every year).
In other words, the CEO believes that the organization will be more successful if he supports the authenticity of the employees (and he’s got a pretty good track record to back that one up). That means “professional” dress is simply not on the table. It would limit their authentic expression.
Does that mean you should ditch your dress code? Not necessarily. But you now have the challenge of figuring out how that dress code contributes to greater success for your organization. That clarity is actually the difference between an effective culture and a random one.