The world of work is changing faster than ever before, and that includes what people wear while they do it. As many longstanding workplace traditions continue to evolve in order to better meet the expectations and preferences of today’s employees, clothing policies have followed suit, too.
With this in mind, we commissioned a survey of over 1,200 U.S. workers across many industries to assess the current state of workplace fashion. We discovered that while employees generally favor more casual dress at work, they'd still like some guidance as to what's considered acceptable. The study also found that ambiguity can cause anxiety and, at times, friction among coworkers, while a formal dress code may be reason enough for an employee to pass over a potential employer altogether.
Here, we compiled some of our key findings along with tips on how to set workplace attire guidelines that align with current worker expectations.
why you need a clear dress code
The natural inclination for many employers today may be to forgo the formation of a dress code entirely. After all, dictating what employees can and cannot wear seems to be a restrictive relic from the past, incongruous with the forward-thinking and inclusive workplaces of today. In fact, 55 percent of managers who responded to our survey said they care more about performance than what their employees wear. And while that sentiment is admirable, failing to establish guidelines around dress can result in friction among workers, ranging from feelings of anxiety around expectations to outright unease.
Thirty percent of all workers said that they experience uncertainty over what's acceptable to wear because their employer's dress code is unclear, and 28 percent said that a colleague's clothing at work has made them feel uncomfortable because it was too revealing.
This kind of unrest, if left unaddressed for long, could pose a serious threat to your employer brand. If workers are feeling uncomfortable on the job due to dress stress, either around what's expected of them or as a result of clothing choices being made by their colleagues, then your workplace culture may start to deteriorate.
Toxic work environments are one of the top reasons that employees leave, with 38 percent of employees saying they would leave their job over a toxic work culture or one where they don't fit in. If you leave the question of dress unanswered for long, then you may find yourself with an even bigger turnover problem down the line.
casual is king
Given the friction that unclear dress policies can cause in the workplace, creating a clear set of standards around workplace attire that's easy for employees to remember and understand can help ease some of the tension.
With whatever guidelines you implement consider erring more on the side of casual than conservative if you want to appeal to the masses. Thirty-three percent of all workers (and 41% of those who currently work in environments with conservative dress codes) agree that they would rather have a casual dress code than an extra $5,000 in pay a year — and an additional 33 percent that they would rather quit their job or not accept a new offer if it meant following a strict, conservative dress code.
The degree to which you specify clothing requirements is up to you and what you think makes the most sense for your workplace and its culture. All workplaces are different, of course, so conduct a survey with your employees to see what their exact attitudes are on the subject. That said, we found some general guidelines that should be applicable to most workplaces in order to get you thinking. For instance, when settling on a workplace clothing policy, consider naming specific items that are acceptable for both men and women to wear as a way to eliminate any opportunity for misunderstanding. Or, you could take the opposite approach and only create a list of absolute don'ts, like no graphic t-shirts or other clothing with offensive language, for example, to give employees more freedom while still preventing the more egregious violations.
Whichever path you end up taking, the goal should be the same: allow employees to dress comfortably but appropriately. You want to encourage your workers to dress in a way that showcases their personal style and enables them to bring their whole selves to work each day — so long as what they choose to wear is not distracting or offensive to others.
Our survey showed that while employees favor casual, comfortable dress in the workplace, they still crave some form of formal guidance around what's considered acceptable. Unclear expectations around appropriate workplace attire can lead to friction among workers, and lead to larger employee engagement and retention issues later on. Given the increased importance that today's workers place on working in a positive environment, generating consensus around dress can help you prevent an easily avoidable workplace culture issue, and get everyone back to focusing on business goals.
For these and other tips on ways to improve employee engagement on your workforce, visit the Randstad Learning Center.
Research findings are based on an OmniPulse survey fielded by national polling firm Research Now on behalf of Randstad US. The survey was fielded from June 24 to July 1, 2019. It included 1,204 employed people between the ages of 18 and 65+ and a nationally representative sample balanced on age, gender and region.