Do Dress Codes At The Office Work?

The new owners of Newsweek recently banned micro miniskirts, baseball caps, and “neglected hair.” What does this mean for innovation, productivity, and creativity?

Do Dress Codes At The Office Work?
[Image: Flickr user Jonathan Mueller]

Can a company’s dress code make or break productivity?


For Ash Sethi, the stringent requirements at his former workplace definitely created a wrinkle in his day. As a legislative advisor in a Senate office on Capitol Hill, Sethi says there were numerous regulations pertaining to grooming and dress.

“Our sideburns were not allowed to reach beyond the bottom of our earlobe, and we were told if they did they’d have to be shaved down immediately,” he tells Fast Company. “Also, unless we were planning to grow a well trimmed beard, we could not be more than one day removed from a shave or we’d be sent to the men’s room with a razor and shaving cream.”

Back in 2006, Sethi recalls that no rule–except for the one that mandated a coat and tie (but no seersucker, please) whenever Senate was in session–was written in a handbook. Rather he says, the code was issued in the form of verbal instruction by the assistant to the chief of staff.

The point of the policy, says Sethi, was likely to show to visitors and outsiders that staff members were smart professionals who were diligent about their work. But it took an undue toll on productivity and morale. “Having such a rigid dress code and grooming policy actually instilled in me a distaste for overtly formal dress at the office,” Sethi maintains, “I felt like so much time and energy was put into worrying about how my appearance would be judged and less on the work I needed to be doing.”

Whistling while you work (even Disney relaxed its 1955 mandate against facial hair) versus slogging through the corporate soup may be as personal as selecting which underpants you’re wearing today, yet plenty of companies adhere to a dress code to keep their staff buttoned up and carefully groomed.

The staff at Newsweek and the Daily Beast may currently have those skivvies in a wad, thanks to a rigorous edict handed down by new owner, the International Business Times (IBT). In a plot twist worthy of a novel, the group that was wont to report on Draconian dress codes now has its own playbook to follow–or be pink-slipped. Among ITB’s rules: tips for personal hygiene “critical as it may affect fellow employees, clients, affiliations, and guests,” along with a list of banned clothing such as flip-flops (or any open-toe sandal), microminis, and midriff-baring tops. “Well-groomed, business-style hair of natural color is required. “Body piercing (other than earrings) should not be visible. Tattoos and body piercings (other than earrings) must be covered.”


There’s no doubt that thoughtful grooming and tailored clothing can elevate a cubicle-dwelling schlump to new heights of sartorial style. Even the army is cracking down on tattoos. And no one wants to sit next to a coworker whose cologne permeates the corridor. But that much restriction can send mixed messages to staff, according to Erica Vanstone.

Now an employee at a regional health-care nonprofit, Vanstone says her organization’s strict dress policy is handed down to staff in writing. Though similar to ITB’s, it’s verboten at Vanstone’s employer to wear jeans of any color, sweats, and sneakers. Though rules get relaxed on Fridays, Vanstone says there are limited options, even though the company policy states, “For some, traditional business attire may simply remain a more favored option on business casual days. The choice will be yours. We hope that business casual days will help make our workplace more enjoyable and productive.”

Vanstone contends these policies are “antiquated and impersonal” and throw up a barrier between employer and employee. “It sets a very firm tone that permeates the business culture within the organization,” she says, “It’s my feeling that dress codes can act as an indicator of how the executive staff respects or does not respect employees or the ability for them to perform their jobs.” She cites the findings of a third-party employee satisfaction survey, which, for two years in a row has garnered unfavorable results. 

No so at Google. The search giant’s lack of a formal dress code means employees’ clothing choices run the gamut of buttoned-up button-downs accessorized with pearl earrings to jeans and T-shirts. But that hasn’t hurt productivity. In fact, while some staff liken its Garage innovation space to a cross between kindergarten and a classy law firm, Google is consistently ranked as one of the top best companies to work for.

Other companies have different dress codes within different departments. Most days, you’ll find TheLadders job search expert Amanda Augustine wearing pearls and a skirt because she’s frequently working with clients. Not 10 feet away from her desk, the tech group sits in T-shirts and sweats or jeans. “Customer-facing people have to be dressed in a way that is suited to their audience,” Augustine points out. “Fashion should fit the function.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out for the employee. Augustine remembers that when she worked for Enterprise car rentals, the dress code was “so strict I had it taped it to my closet door,” she says. Sweating the details of dressing right for the front desk also meant she’d be perspiring for real when she had to pitch in to clean the cars.


Augustine maintains that dress codes, even those severe mandates, are intended to communicate the company’s culture and values. “Perception is also reality when you’re managing a brand.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.