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Slouchy jeans or slick suit: does your dress code compromise productivity?

  26th November 2019       Lisa Orchard
 Accounting & Finance, Client, Engineering, Science & Space, Employment, Executive Search, Human Resources, IT & Software Solutions, Job Seeking Resources, Office & Commercial

Sir Richard Branson hates ties. Steve Jobs favoured black roll neck sweaters. Lord Alan Sugar wouldn’t be seen in anything but a suit. Even the most successful business people have different attitudes to dress codes but can what you wear really alter your productivity?

CEO Today magazine once discussed the decline of smart dressing, citing the entry of Millennials and Generation Z into the workplace as a turning point. It commented that those born after the mid 1990s are fiercely protective of their image and their rights, opposing strict dress codes in favour of individual expression. The magazine also quoted statistics that revealed 1 in 10 workers aged between 18-24 had considered quitting their job due to a strict dress code.

Conflicting opinions

The issue of what to wear to work is a complex matter, however. Confusingly, a study by Stormline published in 2017 highlighted how 68% of those questioned said they were ‘more likely to trust a well-dressed colleague to do a good job than someone in the same position who didn’t make an effort’. The same study also revealed 61% of people looking for a new job said they were more productive when a dress code was relaxed.

While there has been a growing ‘dress down’ movement in the workplace, links between casual attire and reduced productivity are also more than anecdotal. We’ll have to cross the pond to New York to understand the science behind workplace dress codes. The study entitled ‘Enclothed cognition: the effects of clothing on cognitive processes’ makes a fascinating read but the key finding is what we wear can increase accuracy, improve attention, build confidence and prepare us for the task in hand.

Delving even deeper, another American research paper – The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing – harnessed the findings from five separate studies to conclude that wearing formal clothing did enhance abstract cognitive processing,

Closer to home, Professor Pine from the University of Hertfordshire conducted research into how the clothes we wear affects our behaviour. The Professor thinks that wearing casual clothes leads to less focus and she also recognises that clothes can influence others, in addition to affecting those actually wearing the garments. To illustrate, Professor Pine wore a superman t-shirt and this made her subjects believe they were stronger, giving them confidence and the belief they could achieve more by default.

There are strong arguments on both sides of the dress smart issue and to a degree, a company’s dress code needs to reflect its industry and its peers. There is, however, some general advice that all employers should follow, as detailed below:

  1. Spell out smart-casual: many companies looking for a happy medium introduce a smart-casual dress code but this is probably the hardest to interpret. Giving guidance will put employees at ease, so don’t hesitate in listing what is and is not appropriate to wear. But remember…..
  2. Don’t discriminate: the danger of being prescriptive about a dress code is straying in to discriminatory territory. You can implement a strict dress code for health and safety reasons but a more aesthetic set of clothing rules must not discriminate based on the nine protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act 2010.
  3. Treat everyone as equals: Your dress code must apply to men and women equally, even if they have different requirements. The guidance from the Government Equalities Office states ‘a dress code that makes significantly more demands of female employees than of their male colleagues will be unlawful (direct sex discrimination)’. Dictating that women should wear high heels or a certain type of hosiery may be unlawful. In a similar vein, transgender employees should be supplied with dress options that suit their identity.
  4. Have different dress codes: it is possible to have more than one dress code, perhaps one for day-to-day office activities and another for when employees are client facing. Dress down Fridays are also popular, as is keeping business dress but losing the most formal elements, such as ties and suit jackets.

The challenge is for businesses to determine what will work best for them based on their industry, client expectations and workplace culture.

Lisa Orchard

Business Manager

Lisa has over 25 years recruitment experience in the Hampshire region and heads up our Southampton branch, based at Ocean Village. Her passion, energy and personable nature means she has built up an excellent client and candidate network who approach Lisa personally for all of their recruitment and job needs. …


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