Professional Appearance in the Workplace
Dress code, meet disruption: From the swanky offices of Silicon Valley to the foremost firms of Wall Street, standards of professional attire are rapidly shifting. But while many professionals welcome the transition to casual, others are more wary of the change. When rigid dress codes dissolve, uncertainty ensues. What constitutes appropriate clothing exactly? Are colleagues really wearing flip-flops?
Moreover, the business ramifications of loosened dress codes remain unclear. While some experts suggest casual attire impedes productivity, others contend that it boosts morale.
We set out to study how various standards of professional dress affect professionals across an array of industries. Surveying approximately 1,000 employees, we analyzed how dress codes impact their job satisfaction and how expectations at work have evolved. We also studied the distinct experiences of men and women, assessing how standards of dress affect each gender differently. How do others’ attitudes about workplace attire stack up against your own? Keep reading to find out.
Spiffy Threads vs. Satisfaction
Among our respondents, standards of workplace dress differed substantially. Business casual and smart casual were the most common categories, with a majority of professionals saying one of these styles ruled supreme at work. Of course, these terms are subject to a range of interpretations by employees who may gravitate toward one poll of the business casual spectrum. Still, it seems most companies have settled on this sartorial middle ground: Less than 21% of respondents said casual dress was permitted at their job, while 8% of respondents wore business professional attire.
Interestingly, however, those with more rigid dress standards reported greater job satisfaction overall. Eighty-two percent of individuals who wore business professional clothing said they were satisfied with their current employment, a far better record than workers with more relaxed dress requirements. This satisfaction disparity could reflect the nature of jobs that demand formal dress: High-powered executives, for example, may enjoy greater responsibility and compensation. But even workers who wore a uniform were more likely to express job satisfaction than those who dressed casually at work. If employers think relaxed dress codes are a sure way to boost employee attitudes, our data suggests a far more complicated reality.
Attire by Industry
Predictably, some fields have embraced casual work attire more readily than others: 44% of arts, entertainment, and recreation professionals wore casual clothes at work. Tech professionals were also quite likely to dress casually, taking cues from the no-frills style of titans like Mark Zuckerberg. Smart casual was more common among professionals in information services, while business casual dominated among government workers. Interestingly, roughly half of individuals in finance and insurance dressed in business casual as well, a testament to these industries’ ongoing evolution away from formal wear.
Yet, 18% of finance and insurance employees still dressed in business professional clothing, and many other industries demonstrated similarly divergent standards. Professionals in journalism, marketing, and advertising, for example, were among the most likely to dress smart casual – but nearly 17% still dressed in business professional attire. These contrasts may reflect industries in flux, as established corporate entities contend with disruptive upstarts. Indeed, distinguished firms often feel pressure to relax longstanding dress codes to compete with innovative startups for young talent.
Converting to Casual?
Nearly 3 in 10 respondents witnessed a shift toward more casual dress at their current company, suggesting that the trend toward relaxed dress transcends industry divides. Yet, professionals in some fields were especially likely to report a move toward casual wear in the workplace. More than a third of education workers said their employers had loosened sartorial requirements, an interesting development at a time when many schools are reconsidering student dress codes as well. Over a third of tech workers also reported a shift toward more casual dress, as well, although the industry has a long history of shirking formal wear.
In some sectors, however, a significant portion of workers said dress codes had intensified during their tenure. In finance and insurance, over 23% of professionals said their employers had adopted a more formal approach. Among manufacturing and health care workers, around 15% of workers each said the same.
These industries may be experiencing a sort of course correction: Companies sometimes find it necessary to implement stricter policies after loose dress codes are exploited. When employees show up in pajamas, executives are forced to decide if their “no dress code” approach should be literally enforced.
The Stress of Getting Dressed
In terms of precious morning minutes, strict dress requirements can take a toll on professionals’ time. Those who donned business professional clothing took more than twice as long to get dressed as those who wore a uniform to work. Casual dressers also saved some time, spending about a minute less than the average professional getting dressed each morning. While these daily differences may seem minor, they become significant when multiplied over a year – or a decades-long career. Additionally, professionals who dress up for work often deal with the inconvenience of dry cleaning, a time-consuming errand.
Interestingly, those who took longer to get dressed tended to report higher levels of work stress and more difficulty maintaining a work-life balance. This finding could reflect the all-consuming nature of careers that entail formal dress: The legal profession, for example, tends to inflict great stress on its practitioners. Additionally, those with longer tenures at their companies spent more time getting dressed on average. Perhaps these veteran employees have ascended to positions of leadership, requiring formal dress and, thus, more time to get ready.
Among men and women, there was significant disagreement about the suitability of specific clothing items at work. Roughly 6 in 10 female respondents felt comfortable wearing jeans in the workplace, for example, but only 35% would wear leggings.
Ever the source of controversy, leggings prompted a generational divide as well: Relative to their elders, millennial women were much more comfortable wearing them to the office. A similar pattern surfaced around showing up to work with wet hair and wearing a shirt without a bra. Millennial female respondents were significantly more likely to feel comfortable with these choices, although the vast majority did not.
Compared to their female counterparts, men voiced similar levels of comfort with jeans and tennis shoes in work settings. Interestingly, just 27% of men felt comfortable wearing long beards at work.
Major companies have recently come under fire for banning beards in their workforce. Relative to women, a greater percentage of men said they’d feel fine wearing ball caps and jerseys around the office, perhaps reflecting sports fandom. Women, conversely, were more likely to wear clothing they could actually work out in, signaling the cultural significance of “athleisure.”
Appearance and Advancement
Nearly half of female respondents felt they needed to wear makeup to succeed at work, indicating the additional pressure women encounter about their appearance. In some industries, such as journalism, marketing, and advertising or finance and insurance, the percentage with this opinion was even higher. Managers and executives were also most likely to feel this way. In a cruel irony, some research suggests that women who wear makeup are less likely to strike others as strong leaders. Moreover, a host of studies indicate female professionals are consistently and unfairly scrutinized based on appearance, a dynamic that obscures their real accomplishments.
Almost 31% of women and 25% of men also felt pressure to diet and exercise to succeed in their jobs. Unfortunately, some studies reveal a factual basis for this belief: Overweight people earn less, on average, and often report discrimination in the workplace. Furthermore, nearly 1 in 5 women and more than 1 in 10 men felt they had to change the natural texture of their hair to succeed professionally. In California, legislators recently passed a bill prohibiting dress codes that would limit certain hairstyles at work, such as braids, dreadlocks, or Afros.
Among our respondents, more than half said their employers had an official dress code policy. Yet, even these formal guidelines can be exceedingly vague: General Motors, for example, has a two-word policy, “Dress appropriately.” In this sense, the interpretation and enforcement of a dress code matter more than its mere existence. When applied unfairly or inconsistently, well-intentioned policies can result in hard feelings, legal problems, and even discrimination. Which demographics are most likely to encounter these dress code challenges?
Women were more likely than men to report challenges adhering to company dress codes, with 14% finding difficulty doing so. Female respondents were also more likely to be disciplined for attire violations by their employer. In the U.K., government officials have attempted to tackle sexist workplace policies, such as requiring women to wear heels, skirts, and makeup. While no equivalent effort has occurred in the U.S., frustration with heel requirements is mounting among female professionals.
In another disturbing disparity, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and asexual respondents were far more likely to struggle with workplace dress codes. More than a third of this group reported being disciplined for their attire, a much higher rate than straight professionals. These challenges represent just one aspect of the discrimination many professionals face based on sexual preference, a subject recently raised in high-profile cases before the Supreme Court.
Dressing for the Job You Want – and Getting It
Our findings confirm that the American workplace is increasingly casual, with employers across industries abandoning formal wear. Yet, this overall trend obscures enormously varied standards, and there’s little consensus about what actually helps professionals stay engaged and productive. Moreover, men and women experience dress codes quite differently, and sexual minorities are disproportionately disciplined for violating company policy.
Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from this data is that workplace attire raises complex questions. When determining company dress codes, business leaders must incorporate diverse perspectives, rather than assuming their own opinions match those of their colleagues. No solution will perfectly suit every employee’s preferences, but a collaborative approach can help minimize conflict.
Of course, dress codes represent just one dimension of the fit between employee and employer. Simply Hired strives to connect companies and candidates whose vision, needs, and values coincide. Our platform lets you customize your job search to reflect your priorities, so you discover opportunities suited to your career goals. Search with us today to see why we’re different than any other job site.
For this study, we surveyed 996 employed people using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. To qualify, participants had to be employed on a full-time or part-time basis or be self-employed.
Our participants ranged in age from 19 to 75 with an average age of 36.7 and a standard deviation of 11. 53.4% of participants identified as women, 45.9% identified as men, and 0.3% either chose not to reply or identified as nonbinary.
We asked about participants’ sexual preference by using a 7-point scale, ranging from 1 (heterosexual) to 7 (homosexual). Responses of 1, 2, and 3 were grouped into “straight,” and 6 and 7 were grouped into lesbian or gay. People who were asexual chose 4. People who were bisexual could choose 5. In our analysis, we grouped responses between 4 and 7 into the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and asexual group. In all, there were 113 lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual participants.
For the amount of time people took to get dressed, we excluded any outliers that were greater than three times the standard deviation plus the mean. In this instance, that was any time greater than 41 minutes.
None of the findings in this study have been weighted or statistically tested, so they are based purely on means. This is an exploratory study.
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