Are business dress codes outdated?

The war on shorts

Several months back, HP ran afoul of some industry commentators—including our own Collabosphere keynote speaker Jacob Morgan—by allegedly updating its dress code guidelines, giving a big thumbs-down to faded jeans, baseball caps, short skirts, sandals and other similar items that the tech giant believed were pushing business casual too close to outright “casual.”

“The issue here isn’t just about the dress code but about what the new dress code represents, which is: conformity, focusing on the wrong things, not supporting employees and not being forward thinking,” said Morgan.

It turned out that HP wasn’t issuing any sort of sweeping dress code edicts; rather, the war on shorts was confined to a small group within the company. This may have come as a disappointment to competitors looking to poach HP talent by humorously flaunting their own lack of code.


Getting down to business (casual)

Is a modern business completely and hopelessly out of touch if it’s uttering the phrase “dress code” in this day and age? Not necessarily. In this age of collaboration and flexibility, it’s perhaps risky for the powers-that-be to think in terms of absolutes: you must work a set schedule, you must be tethered to your cubicle, you must wear neatly pressed Dockers instead of those ghastly faded Diesels.

Yet there may be some arguments against turning your office into a non-stop pajama party. Where is the line between business casual and casual, or between casual and whoa-keep-it-at-home?

However much we may want flexibility for our own choices in the modern-day collaborative office, we aren’t always so forgiving of others. A full 77 percent of respondents to a Monster survey said that flip-flops were unprofessional (granted, this was a few years ago; perhaps the tide has turned on toe liberation). If, as a manager, you’re not officially restricting someone from wearing ripped jeans but you’d never consider promoting someone who wears ripped jeans, you may want to rethink either your unwritten policies or the strength of your own feelings.


A simple personal code

Yet there are some advantages to uniformity, and it’s been articulated both by a millennial giant and the leader of the free world. Mark Zuckerberg wears a gray T-shirt every day to keep him from spending any energy on “things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” President Obama chooses between two colors of suits in an effort to “pare down decisions.”

Simplicity of attire can remind you of your purpose; “There’s a reason for the things that I have on,” Johnny Cash sang in “Man in Black.”

What you wear can have a psychological impact that affects your performance. As Jill Coody Smits previously noted, a Northwestern study found that doctors did better at their doctoring when they were wearing their lab coats, which may (at least for some) be powerful symbols of their right to be the one holding the scalpel.

“The way you dress has been proven to affect your mindset,” writes Lexicon Capital Management CEO Elle Kaplan. “So leave that Iron Maiden t-shirt at home.”

Personally, I would never tell you to leave your Iron Maiden shirt at home. Just like nobody puts Baby in a corner, nobody should stuff Eddie in a closet. But, sure, it’s worth finding out if you feel more like a boss when you cover it with a favorite suit or button-up.

What do you think? Should businesses play fashion police?

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.