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I want to try to convince my HR department that in the modern workplace an open dress code (i.e. jeans, t-shirts, whatever) leads to happier (and therefore more productive) employees and appeals to younger generations who could become future employees. Right now we are restricted to business casual clothing (khakis, polo, etc) which I and many of my coworkers do not want to follow. What are some major points and resources I can use to build my argument?

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In what country or region are you located? –  Jim In Texas Jan 2 '13 at 18:03
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You assume HR cares about employee productivity. HR only cares about the dress code. –  DA. Jan 3 '13 at 0:37
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@JamesRyan: My employers get to tell me what to do for 8+ hours per day. They don't get to tell me what to wear without a very good reason. If you want to dress up for work, presumably nobody's stopping you. –  Keith Thompson Jan 3 '13 at 7:09
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@JamesRyan that is exactly what HR would say. He doesn't care about what he wears, but he cares about it being a PITA (2 separate wardrobes) and uncomfortable. My wife, an IT pro in an office with a dozen people who all have stacks of tech certs, have no dress code. Her female bosses boss regularly comes to work in babydoll tshirts and flip flops and you know what? They have the exact same people, political and budgetary office problems that I've seen in workplaces for 30 years. Valve/Steam and Google have policies that turn "professional business" on it's ear... so dress code is outmoded. –  monsto Jan 3 '13 at 7:10
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The idea that smart casual is somehow mysteriously uncomfortable is ridiculous. valve/steam and google are not successful because of their dresscode, it is merely an indicator of their working culture, you mistake cause and effect. I've worked for companies with both types of dresscode and I can't say that I have seen any evidence that it made the slightest jot of difference to productivity. –  JamesRyan Jan 3 '13 at 7:50

6 Answers 6

up vote 22 down vote accepted

There's enough evidence out there on both sides, that I don't think you can dig up "unrefutable evidence that a very casual dress code is consistently a win for job X". But there's ways to get what you want anyway... here's some ideas.

Know your restrictions

There are some primary reasons why companies set a dress code: - bad experiences in the past - a desire to create an image in front of the customer - a mentality from senior management on what "appropriate" is - a belief that "sloppy" dress will lead to sloppy behavior.

It sounds like you've got the big pro already - employee satisfaction - which helps both retention and recruitment. Perhaps you can make a sale that comfort also leads to lower stress and better health - but I don't know that you can pull up widely agreed upon studies to back you up there. The big ones are usually what you already mention - employees like it.

So, first, know who and what you are up against. Has your company had a bad experience with casual dress in the past? If so - why, and what can you do to mitigate that? Is it really HR that's the "no" vote or is there a senior exec out there with a bias towards dressing up? What are your limitations with respect to customers? Don't be narrow focused - just because you don't meet personally with customers it doesn't mean that they don't walk through and judge you.

Know why the drive for formal dress before you walk into the meeting so you can be prepared for why your idea will work and the big issues are covered.

Start small

Trying something small and not so scary as a proving ground for casual dress with the option to escalate may mitigate fears if you're in a "we've never done it before and change is bad" cycle. Say, a casual Friday every week, or a 1 month trial and evaluation. Or a choice to let a certain group do it - perhaps those who have to do a lot of unpleasant work so that it's a special treat at least at first.

Staging it as a test with a plan for what demonstrable results would be is a way to suggest an alternative to all or nothing. If it proves to be popular and not damaging to business, you'll have a real world example for why it will work and you can expand upon it.

Legwork

Changing just about any policy requires a great deal of informal legwork in just about any organization. Setting the rule the first time is easy, changing expectations is hard. Prepare yourself for doing a lot of information conversations before and after meetings. Realize that people may not voice opinions in public groups, even when those opinions are very strong - give them the opportunity to talk to you and raise concerns both publicly and privately. Realize that in the end, you'll change opinions one person at a time...

Give people something to go to rather than to avoid. For example, with casual dress you could say either statement:

  • We aren't a stuffy old school company with formal, uncomfortable dress. We don't hold with those outdated norms.
  • We are a young, hip company that responds to the changing times who wants to present an everyday person image that customers and employees alike find non-threatening and accessible.

Which one sounds nicer to be a part of? Even if you like formal dress, the second item sounds worth considering.

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I would recommend against allowing only a certain group have the privilege as part of the test. Speaking from personal experience, this may breed resentment toward that group due to their special treatment (in my case, the IT department had "Casual Friday" taken away, with the rest of the company sharing the same spaces being allowed to keep it while pushing the envelope of appropriate dress for anything but a nightclub). Customer-facing individuals should dress appropriately for their role/job function, regardless of the general policy. –  alroc Jan 2 '13 at 18:37
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I agree with the case you mention, but I threw it out there as not all companies are the same... for example, a place I worked that rarely required overtime had a standing unspoken rule that people working overtime on off hours could dress pretty casually while the office was usually business casual. Similarly, people working proposal projects got a lot of special treatment (not necessarily clothing) but also worked a LOT more hours than people with the same salaries and roles in other assignments. It largely depends on the situation. –  bethlakshmi Jan 2 '13 at 19:11

Some very stodgy companies have made this transition in Canada, and I've seen this pattern a few times.

First, it's a one time thing to raise funds for charity. People "pay" (by donating to the United Way) for the right to wear casual clothes on a specific day. This happens even for customer facing people like bank tellers. Typically they wear these stickers to explain:

enter image description here

Later, when the company didn't crumble and burn from a single day of "business casual" in a suits environment, or jeans-and-tshirts in a business casual environment, someone suggests a trial of "casual fridays", perhaps just in the summer to start.

Eventually someone says "hey! didn't we all used to wear suits?" and no-one is quite sure when the changeover happened.

What isn't going to work is you convincing someone to send a memo, and everyone wearing jeans from then on. Whatever happens will be gradual. The charity angle is a great wedge to get it started, if you have something like it where you live.

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I think your point about the gradual change is really important. –  enderland Jan 3 '13 at 16:33

Some battles are not worth fighting

Does it really matter if you are wearing jeans or khaki slacks? A polo shirt or a tee shirt? They aren't asking you to work in a jacket and tie. And really, wearing a tie is no big deal either if your shirt fits.

Don't expend the limited goodwill you may have accumulated on something most people will view as trivial. Worse, your complaints about this will be seen by many as a sign of immaturity.

Anyway, your argument is weak. I don't think there are a lot of superstars in Ohio who would refuse an otherwise attractive position just because they can't wear jeans to work.

Seriously, just don't go there. Raising this as a problem is a career killer. If it bothers you that much, find a job in a company where you can wear whatever you like.

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"who would refuse an otherwise attractive position just because they can't wear jeans to work" -- I would. But, of course, (a) I'm not in Ohio and (b) I wouldn't apply to that sort of job anyway, so there wouldn't be an offer, so, moot. But your final point is key: "If it bothers you that much, find a job in a company where you can wear whatever you like." hear hear! –  JDS Jan 3 '13 at 4:38

I see from your profile that you are a recent graduate. This gives you much less leverage to work on policy changes than someone with experience because at the entry level you are easily replaceable. Therefore you need to think long and hard about whether you want to bring up this issue at this time. It would be better to wait until you gain a little more experience and some perspective on why the company does not want you to dress in jeans.

In order to successfully change company policies you generally need some street cred, right now you don't have any. So if you truly want to affect the policies of your company, first you have to show them that you are a valueable employee who is a team player. Trying to change things for your convenience or personal preference when you haven't established a reputation as a team player first will almost always fail.

Now truly what you wear is a trivial issue, do you really want to waste whatever street cred you have on it or would you prefer to be able to have influence on things that are much more important such as the way software is developed. You are young, learn to pick your battles.

If you are going to try to change policies then the first thing you need is to understand office politics and how to influence decisions when you don't have the authority to make them. You also need to understand how to sell an idea. How to Win Friends and Influence People is a good book to start with.

Something else you might find really helpful is a slide desck from a presentation at the PASS conference this year: http://sqlblog.com/blogs/kevin_kline/archive/2012/11/12/pass-summit-2012-slide-decks.aspx

Go to the link and download the slide deck for Winning Influence in IT teams. It was one of the best sessions I attended at the PASS Conference and every young person just coming into the workplace needs to see this.

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Not so trivial for recent college grad; this could require a second wardrobe along with time and cleaning/maintenance costs. Why dress business casual if you're not going to clean and press? This is probably a better place to start for a less experienced person. –  JeffO Jan 2 '13 at 18:58
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A recent grad should have business casual if they are serious about having a professional career. I had to buy a whole wardrobe of suits and heels and yet somehow I managed. And I'm pretty sure you need to clean all of your clothes. And if you buy the right business casual and wash it correctly, you shouldn't need to press. I haven't pressed clothes in 20 years for work and I have worked places where business casual was the norm. –  HLGEM Jan 2 '13 at 19:04
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Probably the most pull a recent hire has is the ability to find the job that has the perks they want and go there. Leaving a company often tells them that they need to figure out what policies are important to the company versus employee retention. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 2 '13 at 21:07

As I commented on uniforms, dress codes form part of the organisational culture, and relaxing dress codes usually represents a major organisational change.

Any conservative organisation will resist organisational change, by definition. This is likely to lead to a reactive response that is supported by a fear of extreme scenarios, for example:

  • Dirty, smelly jeans ripped to the extent that underware is on display, topped off with an t-shirt sporting a strong position on a hot political topic using R18 language.
  • T-shirts endorsing a rival companies products, or carefully selected for passive/aggressive needling of a co-workers

In building a business case you will need to ensure that the overall organisational benefits outweigh the risks or additional work. As with my previous answer related to business cases, I'd suggest:

  • find out why your company has a dress code in the first place
  • think about the potential pitfalls of relaxing the dress code
  • focus on reducing risk/expense rather than improving efficiency

It is likely the only really practical angle is to look at increased staff retention and ease of staff recruitment, in the light of the demographic changes as a result of baby boomers retiring. Be aware that they may also be more interested in retaining their existing baby boomers, and catering to their needs, not yours.

For the HR department to come on board the reduction in work recruiting/replacing staff would have to would have to out weigh the cost of redefining just what was and was not acceptable; if they don't see a recruitment or retention issue at the moment (ask them!) then it will could be a long and difficult battle.

More critically, even with HR as an ally, they would have to convince other key stakeholders (senior management, board, investors, clients) that the relaxation of standards would align with a modern, younger brand image of the company overall, assuming this is actually part of their business strategy. Your industry and changing client base are critical here.

In an ideal world this wouldn't be an issue, but I wouldn't underestimate the resistance you could encounter.

For the record, we don't have a dress code, but I have had to pull staff up from time to time for offensive or insensitive t-shirt messages.

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Why is this dress code so important to your company that they've gone to the trouble of making it a policy? There may have been a time when jeans were allowed, but too many people showed up to work in torn and faded jeans with their butt-cracks sticking out. This could be more of a firm-wide compromise since many employees need to meet with customers or your office has visitors and see it as unfair to only allow your group to dress casually (Maybe there are privelages they have that you don't which you can point out as a compromise?) Another reason may be to promote a professional environment.

Your job is to identify the rationale behind the dress code assumption. It could just be a preference to those in charge. You've identified this as a group preference and your assumption is this will make you happy which will make you better workers. Also, are you truly getting feedback from potential employees that they chose not to work there because of the dress code? Programmers (and probably other creative types) are misunderstood and mismanaged by many corporate leaders who don't get it.

Do a little more research. You have your work cut-out for you. Good luck.

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