Cameron Watters Software Engineer and Leader in Phoenix and Seattle

Business Casual Dress Code Considered Harmful

Dressing For Success

I’m not sure who comes up with these jewels, but it’s probably the same crowd that thinks vacuous motivational posters and their platitudes are actually effective. This argument suggests that dressing up will positively affect our performance. Notice, I didn’t say “reflect”, I said “affect”. These people actually believe that employee productivity is directly proportional to the “professionalism” of their attire. This may be true for a few people, but it isn’t universally true because it is wholly dependent on the unspoken assumption that everyone associates “well-dressed” with “successful”. I’m not talking about interaction with the public or customers here. I’m talking about how people feel about themselves. The degree to which someone associates “well-dressed” with “successful” is largely a function of their cultural upbringing. A person that grew up in the Midwestern United States in the 50s and 60s is going to feel very differently about this than someone raised on the West Coast during the 80s and 90s. It turns out that this argument is little more than the cultural preference of regional and generational subgroups masquerading as a universal principle. In many cases, this approach to dress also reflects cultural socio-economic prejudices. In past decades, particularly east of the Rocky Mountains, jeans and t-shirts were the traditional garb of the working class.

“But”, they say, “people will take you more seriously if you dress up more!” Maybe. That probably says a lot more about them than it does about anyone else. If you’re dealing face-to-face with the public or your customers, great, dress up. I understand that. At that point, how you dress becomes a part of the public-facing corporate image—the brand. What one wears while sitting at a desk, far, far away from customers does not.

This argument is especially difficult to swallow if one is also forced to sit at second-rate desks held up by stacks of books. How can what the employees wear possibly matter when the office equipment and furniture are the shabbiest thing around the office? The quality of the tools and equipment speak volumes more about the nature of the company than employees’ clothing choices.

Your Attire Reflects Your Character?

This argument probably pains me more than any other. It is ultimately a classist, socio-economically prejudiced position. This suggests that people well-schooled in “proper” attire and fashion are somehow of greater character and/or discipline than those who have not been similarly schooled. Putting shoulder pads and a helmet on Miss America wouldn’t make her a football player any more than putting a nice dress, makeup and a wig on Tom Brady would make him a beautiful woman. In order to make character judgments about people based on their attire, we must assume that the associations between various types of attire and character are well-understood and agreed upon by both the wearer and those evaluating his dress. Again, these assumptions derive not from a single, well-established, objective source, but instead from the culture (or sub-culture) in which each person was raised. Those cultural inputs are both regional and socio-economic. Neither one’s region or socio-economic status of origin are a legitimate primary basis for character evaluation. Additionally, it is both lazy and ignorant to place the bulk of the burden for bridging the potential expectation gap on the shoulders of the wearer, since neither person is objectively correct.

This view is particularly destructive because many (most?) people are more comfortable in the attire that comes naturally to them. Of course, there are limits and there is a legitimate baseline for cleanliness and hygiene, but needlessly forcing someone who grew up in a cultural environment where jeans were a wardrobe staple to wear slacks/khakis all the time is no less obnoxious than needlessly requiring someone to wear jeans every day if they grew up believing that a good suit or is the hallmark of the wearer.

Uniform Dress Is More Equitable?

This is an argument I’ve heard more of recently, and, while less distressing than the first two, is equally flawed. This argument is predicated on the idea that sameness and equality are the same thing. Deconstructing that bit of nonsense requires a post unto itself, but suffice it to say that while the principle seems to be popular among equality activists, it’s a pretty significant fallacy.

In the workplace, such thinking leads to all kinds of bad decisions. For instance, it would suggest that everyone should work in the same physical environment and be provided the same equipment as well. That’s ridiculous. Different jobs require different environments and different tools. People who travel frequently need notebook computers; people who don’t may not. People who are on-call should have company-funded cell phones; for people who aren’t, they are optional. People who need quiet and the ability to focus on complex problems (programmers, for instance) benefit greatly from private (or at least shared/semi-private) offices; call center workers and administrative staff may not. People who interact face-to-face with customers should dress accordingly during those interactions; people who aren’t interacting face-to-face with customers shouldn’t be required to dress as if they were.

It’s easy to address the cries of “Unfair! Unfair! Why do programmers get to wear jeans and t-shirts?” Let everybody wear jeans and t-shirts if their job doesn’t involve face-to-face contact with customers. Heck, even if it does, let them dress as they like on days when they’re not meeting with customers.

Impact on Recruiting and Culture

Depending on your location, dress code may also be a factor in your recruiting efforts. If all of the software companies around you allow jeans and t-shirts, then it’s probably going to hurt recruiting if you don’t allow them.

I guess for me it all comes back to the idea that the dress code, and the corporate culture overall, should be focused on creating the environment that is most conducive to employee productivity. If you’re a software company, that means programmer productivity. If you’re a software company that doesn’t recognize that your company’s success is directly proportional to the quality of your software (and therefore, the quality and productivity of your programmers), you probably have deeper problems than your dress code.

If people are more comfortable in jeans and t-shirts, let them wear jeans and t-shirts.