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Corporate Dress Codes – Does How You Dress Affect Your Success?

June 4, 2010 · 187 comments

in Work

This morning, I was reading an old Dilbert cartoon that showed Catbert, Human Resources Director,  manipulate the corporate dress code to cause insanity.  The dress code is explained as follows:  “Casual clothes don’t lower stock value, but only if worn on Fridays unless somebody sees you.  Fridays are casual but you can’t wear jeans because jeans look and feel good and you already own several pairs.”   When Catbert is accused by Alice of creating “another sadistic human resources plot to make people quit”, Catbert responds “Say hello to unsightly tan lines”.

That comic is a perfect example of why I love Dilbert so much, it hit the nail right on the head.  It also really got me thinking of the evolution of the dress code in the workplace.  When I first started working for Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in 1991, the women were required to always wear skirts and heels.  Some women even wore giant bows where a man would wear a tie.   So, I spent a lot of my first paychecks on ‘suits’ for women.  (Skirt, blouse, jacket.  I never did buy into the bow thing though.)   Of course, men all wore suits with ‘power ties’.   I believe the power tie of that era was yellow for some reason.

Flash forward 19 years later.  Most people I know go to work casual, if they go in to the office at all.  My former employer (which has since been bought by Hewlett Packard) now allows jeans in the workplace.  By the way, the ‘workplace’ doesn’t exist as it once did.   Many people now work from home, where they are free to wear whatever they want (or not…).

So what I wonder is this:  Is business actually affected by the dress code?  Do clients buy less from people that are dressed in khaki pants and a polo shirt versus a suit?   I am so far removed from the workplace since I have not worked in an actual office regularly for about 12 years that I don’t know the answer.  (When I was working, it was from home.)   Has casual dress gone too far?  I am sure Ward Cleaver would never think of going into a meeting with Fred Rutherford wearing anything less than a full suit and tie.

So, what do you wear to work?  Do you feel the clothes a person wears affects their success?  Obviously a lawyer cannot go walking around in court wearing torn jeans and Birkenstocks.  But in typical situations,  if you are looking to do business with someone, does their clothing choice affect your decision?

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Money Reasons June 4, 2010 at 10:26 am

While I do where jeans and a polo shirt when I do go to work (I telecommute some days), I personally think a more professional business look will help your career, if you have talent.

Of course the clothes will have to look good on you too. If you wear business clothes and look goofy, that is just another strike against you.

If you have good skills and a good work ethic, and dress professionally, I think it tells management that you take your job seriously and want to be promoted a little more than the next person that doesn’t dress as well.


Kris June 5, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Hi MR- I used to work with the quirkiest fellow. He used to wear a brown pinstripe three piece suit every day, and he brought a muppets lunchbox to work. He was one of the most respected guys around the technical folk. But I often wondered if his quirkiness is why he never got into management, or because he just like to write computer programs.

Isn’t telecommuting the best???


Budgeting in the Fun Stuff June 4, 2010 at 11:46 am

I work for crazy conservatives. All programmers and people in the main building have to wear business attire like suits.

All the people in the “Plant” (the side bulding I work in) have to wear business attire or the company’s polo shirts and khakis. BUT, women in the plant can get away with slacks and a nice blouse and close-toed shoes. I love and use that to my advantage since I can’t stand tucking in a shirt or wearing a suit every day. Woot for double-standards! 😉


Kris June 5, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Hi BFS- Do those people in the main building ever have to see clients, or do they just dress up for the fun of it? That was what I hated back when I wore a suit in the office. I just sat at my cube writing computer programs and only my coworkers (who were dressed the same as me) saw me. So, the ultra-conservative dress never made sense to me.


Budgeting in the Fun Stuff June 7, 2010 at 11:47 am

No, they are programmers. They aren’t allowed to see almost anybody, especially clients. My programmer friends hate the dress code and also don’t understand why it’s imposed.


Kris June 7, 2010 at 12:35 pm

BFS – I lived that exact same life. Dressing in suits just for the sake of sitting there writing code makes no sense. I empathize with them!


Young Mogul June 4, 2010 at 2:10 pm

I work in Higher Education and while I don’t wear business suits, I do dress professionally (slacks/blouse; skirt/blouse; dresses, etc). The only exception is casual Friday–which for me is business casual, despite seeing some hot messes in the workplace; and when the students are out like the short break that just ended from the end of Spring semester until the start of summer school.

I think it’s always best to air on the side of conservative dress in the workplace because even though times have changed, you don’t know if you are dealing with an old-fashioned supervisor. The same holds true, in my opinion, with job interviews.


Kris June 5, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Hi Mogul! I agree, conservative is probably best, unless you are working in one of those cool internet companies on the west coast where they just wear what they want and make money hand-over-fist. 🙂

Thanks for the visit!


Squirrelers June 6, 2010 at 9:38 pm

How you dress can say a lot about you as a professional. If you underdress, you might not get the job or opportunities in your company. If you look like you’re serious about your job and actually are, then it can only help in most cases. Dressing well isn’t more important than talent and results, of course, but all other things being equal it can help.

Now, being too well dressed might be harmful in a few cases. If I’m looking to hire a consultant or someone of the like, I might get a more favorable first impression by the person who is dressed acceptably but neatly, vs the one dressed very sharp and expensively. The latter could indicate high expense for me down the road:)

All depends on the situation, but the bottom line is the dress appropriately for the situation and do so in a way that puts your best foot forward. Show that you care.


Kris June 6, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Squirreler, that is an excellent point about someone dressing too expensively possibly being a liability to you later on. I know for some people that have to drive to visit a client, they want a nice car, but not too nice to where their client might think they are being over-charged to pay for that nice vehicle.

It would be so nice if when you were hired for that first job or you re-enter the workforce, if you received a ‘clothes bonus’ so you could buy what clothing is appropriate for that setting. I know that is a not going to happen given our economy, but it would be a nice perk.


Revanche June 12, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I’m now part of management but because I look young and am a newly minted manager, I dress very conservatively: slacks and button downs, nice sweaters (I only own 2!) – it took over two months to allow myself to wear trouser jeans to work.

My bosses wear jeans and other “nice” clothes but not suits, my CEO wears t-shirts and jeans, our programmers walk around with no shoes. All in the same floor of the same building. 🙂 It’s kind of hilarious.

And I had to talk to an employee who had very prominent, er, issues when she wore a tight top without a bra one day. She does NOT command respect, poor kid.


Kris June 12, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Revanche – it sounds like you work in a great environment.

I have to ask how the employee reacted when you told them to wear a bra???


Revanche June 13, 2010 at 6:12 pm

It’s got its ups and downs, but definitely casual in the professional career-wear department! 🙂

She was surprised, but not overly so. I didn’t make a big deal of it, just let her know that there are people who were uncomfortable with what they were seeing and asked her to be aware of what people would see when she dressed. I refused to say she was required to wear a bra so long as she addressed the problem not wearing one caused. 🙂


Revanche June 13, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Sigh. Typo. “Its got its …” Had to correct it, that bothers me!


Lisa Jarvis August 9, 2010 at 1:03 pm

The thing about corporatewear is that most people think you always have to be suited up all the time, which you don’t. You can look just as great whilst still looking the part with whats known as the Australian look. Smart trousers, a smart shirt with no tie… pleae make a note of that those people who are tiephobic. One of the biggest impressions to to make sure you have a nice hair cut and please make sure your finger nails are clean and do not look like they have been chewed by a dog.


Den Ford October 12, 2010 at 4:57 am

I do feel that the way people dress affects their who attitude not just how they work, sometimes uniforms are appropriate in the work place not just for how they look but for safety reasons to, it is also normal to expect bosses to be dressed according to the workplace they manage


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