When getting dressed for the office, we’re beginning to take style tips from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, rather than Mad Men’s Don Draper. While sharp suits, fancy dresses and high heels may still be seen in some workplaces, employees are increasingly opting for a more casual style, with a greater focus on comfort. Suits are out and techie casual is in.

Just one in 10 British workers wears a suit to work and only 50 percent of British employers have established a dress code, according to a 2018 survey by hotel chain Travelodge. Some believe that a casual approach to office attire enables them to show off their personality at work. But is that really the case? Perhaps the clothes worn in the modern office are simply a different kind of uniform.

Take Mark Zuckerberg, for example. He wears jeans and a simple grey T-shirt every day at work. The reason? Apparently, he wants to avoid wasting time on deciding what clothes to wear.

Why you should dress for the job you want

So in a business casual world, is the old adage of dressing for success obsolete? Not quite.

For some people, not having the ‘right’ clothes for an interview can actually act as a barrier to entering the workforce. To remove this obstacle, a number of social enterprises aim to help unemployed people, especially women, to find appropriate clothing.

For example, the aim of Dublin-based charity Dress for Success is to boost female economic independence by offering work clothing and styling consultations to help people “dress for confidence and professionalism”.

Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is a patron of UK charity, Smart Works, which provides clothes and one-to-one interview preparation to long-term unemployed women.

Dressing the part can boost your confidence ahead of an interview, and it can impact how other people see you. However, what you wear can affect more than your confidence.

Our clothes can actually influence the way that we think, according to a 2015 study by researchers from Columbia University and California State University.

“Formal clothing is often worn to follow norms, but also serves to obtain respect, signaling professionalism and maintenance of social distance,” states the 2015 report. “The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person, and how people perceive themselves, but could influence decision-making in important ways through its influence on processing style.”

The gender bias of dress codes

Wearing clothes that fit in with your company’s corporate culture and make your feel confident is one
thing. But what happens when you come up against an overly prescriptive rule book?

A lot of employers are relaxing dress codes. A key reason behind this is the inherent gender bias contained in many of them.

Earlier this year, Aer Lingus announced that female cabin crew members were no longer required to wear make-up and could wear trousers if they wished.

In 2015, a wide-ranging debate on dress codes and gender bias began when a British female temp was sent home from finance firm PwC for wearing flat shoes, rather than the high heels prescribed by the agency that employed her. In the British parliament, a debate was triggered by an online petition calling for it to be made illegal for companies to force women to wear heels to work. A subsequent social media campaign by a gender equality charity saw thousands of women posting pictures of themselves at work wearing flat shoes.

Last year, the British government published dress code guidance for employers, which highlighted the need to be mindful of equality. “A dress code could be unlawful, for example, if it requires female employees to wear high heels, with all the discomfort and inherent health issues these can cause, because it treats women less favourably than men,” according to the recommendation.

“Dress codes can be a legitimate part of an employer’s terms and conditions of service,” it states. “There are different ways of achieving a professional ‘look’ among employees, but it is important that a dress code does not discriminate.”

Gender bias is not the only potential minefield that employers face if they choose to implement a dress code. Religion is another area that requires careful consideration.

In 2017, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that a company policy banning the wearing of religious or political signs, such as a headscarf, was not necessarily discriminatory. Amnesty International issued a statement saying that the ECJ’s ruling was disappointing and gives “greater leeway to employers to discriminate”.

For employers, navigating these kinds of issues can be a minefield. In a blog post published shortly after the ECJ ruling, legal firm Mason Hayes & Curran noted that employers should weigh up several factors “including religious rights, conventional standards and equal treatment” when considering policies on employee dress and appearance.

“If policies are being updated or adopted for the first time, consultation with employees should be considered. Employers should ensure that any restrictions have a legitimate aim, these restrictions are necessary to fulfil that aim and that they seek to treat all employees equally,” according to the legal firm.

Dress codes can be minefields for employers

Certain types of role, such as those in retail and hospitality, may require staff to wear a uniform and comply with a dress code. But given the potential for misfires, is there any need for such a code in other offices?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, consultant Sue Bingham suggests that companies keep it simple and trust their staff to get it right. She believes that the term ‘dress appropriately’ should be adequate. In Bingham’s view, having prescriptive rules for staff on dress – and other HR matters, such as punctuality – is the wrong approach.

“If you believe employees need strict rules and enforcement to be productive, hiring and retaining high- performance people will be a challenge for you,” she wrote. “You hired these people for their tenacity and talents. Get out of the way and let them be great.”

Bingham’s logic is that most people know how to read a room, get a sense of the culture and find something in their wardrobe that fits the bill. For the most part, this holds true. But what do you do if someone on your team isn’t dressing appropriately for the office?

As a leader, discussing an employee’s appearance is dangerous ground. Broaching the subject of an employee’s unkempt appearance or poor personal hygiene is tricky, and it requires a sensitive approach.

Before you embark on an awkward conversation, bear in mind that clothing is very subjective. One person’s ‘inappropriate’ is another person’s ‘perfectly fine for work’. You should also consider whether the company and you, as a leader, have clearly set out expectations on what is appropriate and what’s not. And, finally, don’t forget to seek support from HR in order to avoid any nasty legal issues in the future.

When it comes to dressing for work, as much as possible do allow your employees to be themselves. You hired them so place your trust in them.