What Does Your Office Dress Code Say About Your Brand?

Is your dress code 'casual clothing' or 'smart casual' and what's the difference? Your code might say more about your brand than you realize.

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By Anna Johansson

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As an entrepreneur and founder of your company, you know that it's within your power to shape your office dress code as you see fit. If you want to uphold the traditional standards of formal business attire, you can do so. If you're okay with your coworkers wearing pajama bottoms and flip-flops (as long as the work gets done), you can do that too.

Related: What's the Difference Between Business Casual and Smart Casual? A Handy Guide on How to Dress. (Infographic)

But your choice in dress code might be saying more about your brand than you realize. Though it seems small in the grand scheme of things, it's worth your consideration if you care about your team's productivity, morale and image.

The dress code decline

There's no right or wrong dress code to adopt, but each dress code has potential strengths and weaknesses in today's business environment.

According to a survey by OfficeTeam, reported by the L.A. Times, the average dress code in the United States is drifting toward less formality. Roughly half of senior managers believe their employees' clothes are less formal than what they wore just five years ago, with 47 percent indicating that their workers are dressing "too casually."

We can see the manifestation of this trend at all levels. For example, take JPMorgan Chase, a classic Wall Street firm with more than 237,000 employees. The financial industry has historically been regarded as one of the strictest in terms of dress code, forcing employees to wear "business formal: in nearly all situations. Yet JPMorgan Chase recently made the downshift to business casual attire, too.

Related: How to Dress for a Business Meeting. Yes, Seriously. (Infographic)

At the other end of the spectrum are tech companies like Google, which has no formal dress code whatsoever. In fact, casual dress isn't uncommon in Silicon Valley; entrepreneurs there want to build relaxed work environments, where employees are passionate about their work. So employers see overly fussy dress codes as a distraction from that work.

Defining terms

Your dress code, or lack thereof, won't make much sense unless you're using the right terminology to describe it. Most of us have a good sense of what casual or "smart casual" attire is; in a casual clothing setting, you can wear almost anything you'd like, so long as it isn't obnoxious. In a smart casual setting, you'll want a nice pair of jeans and maybe a polo shirt or nice blouse.

Business formal attire, on the other hand, is also ingrained in us; for men, it includes a suit and tie, for women, it means a pantsuit or tailored dress.

Business casual is where most people start getting confused, since it combines two contradictory terms. But Westport Big & Tall explains the term concisely, noting that while there is no universal standard definition, the general agreement is that casual items like jeans, shorts, T-shirts, sneakers and sandals aren't appropriate.

Instead, appropriate choices could range from chinos, a polo and loafers, to leather oxfords, with a tucked-in dress shirt and blazer (but no tie). Because of this range, and the compromise it represents, business casual has become a top choice for indecisive companies. It's also advantageous because it offers so many options for employees; they can achieve a clean look with inexpensive wardrobe elements, but also go for more boutique options, which provide a more polished look (though at higher prices).

A double-edged sword

The general hypothesis is that the more formal your dress code is, the more seriously your employees will take their work, and the more professional you'll seem to your clients. The more casual your dress code is, the more relaxed and less stressed your employees will be, but they may also be more easily distracted, or give a bad impression to clients.

There haven't been many scientific studies to determine how your dress code affects worker performance, but there are some secondary studies to look at. For example, there was one study that found that wearing a lab coat could improve performance on intelligence tests, suggesting that our performance may be affected by the type of uniform we're wearing.

Self-reported surveys indicate that 61 percent of people polled said they believed their existing dress code had no positive impact on their productivity, and 45 percent people believed they would be most productive wearing clothes they felt most comfortable in. As many as 12 percent of those surveyed had considered quitting their job just because of the dress code, indicating that people take the dress code seriously.

That said, there's no empirical consensus on whether a formal or casual dress code is better; because individual preferences and responses to dress vary so significantly, it's virtually impossible to make a universal conclusion. What is evident, however, is that each level of the dress code comes with strengths and weaknesses, and most people do care about what they're wearing.

Related: Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Enforce a Summertime Dress Code

Given that information, it's certainly in your best interest to choose the dress code that best reflects your brand culture and appeals to the people you want to hire. Are your employees the type who are passionate about their work, and just want to work as comfortably as possible? Or are they the type who want to don a professional "work persona," and appear as polished as possible?

Whether you're presenting your business to a new client, a new employee, or the team you've known for years, your dress code has the potential to say it all. Make sure you define it wisely.
Anna Johansson

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Freelance writer

Anna Johansson is a freelance writer who specializes in social media and business development.

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