As employees return to work, there will be many young adults navigating the office environment for the first time. Pre-pandemic, many companies were implementing casual dress code policies. For example, in a 2019 Randstad survey, 79% of the work environments analyzed were deemed casual.
Yet dress codes are still a mystery for young adults. Despite following guidelines, more than one in three employees under the age of 35 report having been asked to dress more professionally.
In a recent discussion question I posed to Rutgers students around dress codes, young adults shared insights like this: “When I first started [my current] job, I changed how I dressed because I wanted to be seen as a professional. I did not want to be seen as a secretary or someone that runs errands for my manager.”
Arguably, among the most confusing parts of following dress codes are the unspoken norms young adults are expected to follow. These are a few recommendations of what managers can do to help spread understanding, particularly as more young people land their first job and take their first (slightly more dressed-up) step into an office.
Review dress code policies
One of the most important things managers can do for young hires is help them interpret dress code policies. Randstad’s research found 30% of employees don’t understand what they should wear at work because dress codes are often unclear or vague.
As one respondent explained: “In an onboarding pamphlet for a job I was hired to do, there was a section that said, ‘We are a clean-cut company, dress and look accordingly.’ I didn’t exactly know what that meant.”
During the onboarding period, managers can share feedback related to what young adults should wear, including calling out times when their attire should change (such as during meetings with external clients or virtual presentations with senior leaders). It’s also important for managers to share unspoken norms about attire.
For example, one young graduate shared: “I have tattoos on my arms and legs. Although it was never explicitly stated, I noticed how I was treated once I covered my tattoos. I was taken more seriously.”
Since young adults feel pressure to fit in and be accepted at work, figuring out what to wear can bring about moments of stress. For example, as one respondent observed, “I watch my sister stress about the outfit she is going to wear the next day. She doesn’t want to wear bright colors, but she also doesn’t want to wear all neutral colors that are dull.”
Further, some young adults opt out of casual attire and prefer formal business attire; some even overdress to boost their confidence. Managers can lessen this stress by encouraging open dialogue about personal appearance. For example, a supervisor can try leading with the following: “When I first began working, I wasn’t always sure of what to wear at work. Do you ever feel that way?”
Work to eliminate judgment and bias
Managers should also be mindful of how they communicate with employees regarding appearance. For example, they should avoid making employees feel judged, as this person did: “When I wore . . . a hoodie to work, I was criticized by my boss, who told me the first thing of doing well is to dress like a ‘normal’ employee.”
When managers approach employees, they can frame the conversation positively and explain the importance of personal appearance. For example, managers can say something like, “Sometimes, organizational norms include how people dress at work. At our company, there are certain appearance norms that senior leaders expect all employees to follow.” Start by discussing what is expected. And follow up by saying, “I believe practicing these norms increases your chances of being taken seriously and establishing credibility.”
Managers must maintain a delicate balance, since oftentimes talking about personal appearance can make young adults feel vulnerable. To draw from a personal experience, early in my career my manager judged me for wearing bright clothes. This feedback made me question whether other leaders perceived me in this same way: young and seemingly less credible and capable. More important, I felt like I couldn’t bring my authentic self to work, which made me question my organizational fit.
On the topic of fit, organizations are recently starting to revisit their dress codes to foster more inclusive workplaces. For example, UPS recently updated its policies, and now drivers are permitted to have facial hair, piercings, and natural hairstyles.
As with all new mandates, managers are responsible for making sure employees are up to date and aware of any changes. Furthermore, managers should be aware of their own biases. We all have them, and sometimes those biases can result in negative perceptions. For example, despite changes being made at the organizational level, some managers retain their preconceived notions of professional attire and appearance. And when biases are present, it can result in employees feeling excluded.
As described by one young adult: “As a person of color, we often are forced to assimilate to meet Eurocentric and heteronormative norms of workplaces. [To me,] professionalism has a Eurocentric definition.”
According to research, managers must push themselves to avoid prioritizing some work styles over others. As an example, managers can avoid making comments about personal style such as, “I wouldn’t wear hoop earrings to a client meeting.”
In short, managers can do both—provide guidance about appearance and be inclusive. Managers can achieve this balance by broadening their perceptions of organizational fit, including showing an openness to personal appearance and style.
Kyra Leigh Sutton, PhD, is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her research interests include the development and retention of early-career employees.