Do You Really Need a Dress Code?

Business dress codes are back in force. It’s a trend that has crept into schools in the last few years and is now spreading its bland tentacles into offices everywhere.

Even ‘creatives’ aren’t exempt. The dress code for Newsweek magazine staff has just been leaked. Jeans, t-shirts and open-toed sandals are out; tattoos need to be covered up and hair kept sweet and natural. Elsewhere, banking giant UBS specifies skirt length for women and sock height for men and much more in a 44-page dress code manual.

Do small businesses need a dress code?

Many of us started our own business to put that kind of corporate nonsense behind us. But even the smallest business may have to consider a dress code as it grows. Over the last few years, events planner, Sue, has introduced the following dress rules: no holes or tears, stains or tie-dyed trousers. She wishes she hadn’t had to state the obvious and could have trusted to common sense, but now there’s a policy, or rather a post-it note above the kettle. To be fair, the majority of her team still doesn’t need to be told how to dress.

But in some industries clearer rules are important. In customer-facing roles where customer expectations are an important part of building trust, a uniform product and uniformed staff makes sense. Think catering, trades, taxis and so on. Top-end outfits, like Harvey Nichols, even online prestige companies like Nile Jewelers, need their staff to reflect brand values whenever they interact with the public. Uniforms are also reassuring where hygiene or safety are core to the business: health care, emergency services, and food industries. As well as uniforms, most of those industries also have rules and guidelines about hair, jewelry and footwear.

When customers are paying for something original, it stands to reason they would expect the individuals they deal with to be able to express that originality in the way they dress. Professionals like consultants and lawyers need to show judgment in their work and you’d expect that judgment to also be expressed in the way they dress. For creative roles like designers, a bland corporate look could actively deter customers.

Inspiring a better turn-out

Rather than rigid rules, Sue found that a better way to perk-up her staff’s and her own image was to bring in some positive support and inspiration. As a team of mostly women, mostly over-forty, they had started to grow overweight together. Small things, like a fruit bowl, to encourage a culture of healthier eating and optional sports challenges to help everyone get into better shape went a long way.

An image consultant helped staff review and improve their wardrobes. Sue herself had started to shroud her extra weight in dowdy dark dresses. A colour analysis opened her eyes to a few stand-out items she already owned, and she also discovered that, with online outlets like Navabi, outsize doesn’t need to be out-of-date.

Holding a brief development session to refocus on brand values and how staff can demonstrate those values through personal presentation without losing their individuality was also very powerful. The end result was clearer customer focus and a motivated team who felt trusted and valued.

Where dress codes aren’t vital their imposition risks de-motivating your team. There can be a better way. By involving the team in a positive and collaborative exercise, as Sue has, staff won’t just look better they will also feel better about your business. And if such people are your business, that’s an attitude that certainly won’t do it any harm.

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