Work settings are associated with a variety of informal and formal dress codes—everything from casual Friday to presentation attire—but we (our field and cognate fields) don't seem to have a good reason to have such codes. That is, why do people go to a different part of their wardrobes when they go to work than when they go out in public otherwise? As an evidence-based, practice-heavy field, this state of (thus-far-) unjustified guidelines, which constitute at least a cognitive burden on and perhaps additionally a financial burden on (and contravention of individual expression for) individuals, is unsettling to us. We strongly believe that these burdens have real negative impact on people’s experiences at work, especially for those whose lack of social or economic privilege prevent them from challenging such codes. Without empirical support for their use, such dress codes are truly worrisome to us. So why are they in use?
As is the pattern in this column, we turned to some SIOP members for their insights. We fully acknowledge that this sample of perspectives does not cover the range of unique experiences people may have with dress codes at work but hope that this narrow peek into the dress code world of I-O is of some interest to you. We aim for this piece to be the beginning of a continued discussion on workplace dress codes and wish to bring more perspectives to the conversation in the future.
A few caveats:
- This is an unscientific approach to the topic. Enjoy the irony.1
- We reached out to a bunch of people and heard back from fewer than is typical in these circumstances. We also offered to protect the identities of all respondents. We respect that sticking one’s neck out here may be uncomfortable or dangerous and that we did little to assuage such danger (and are writing from a biased stance). ::shrug::
- There is research on attire in the workplace/interviews (Adomaitis & Johnson, 2005; Barrick, Shaffer, & DeGrassi, 2009; Forsythe, Drake, & Cox, 1984; Galin & Benoliel, 1990; Karl, Hall, & Peluchette, 2013; Karl, Peluchette, & Hall, 2016; Peluchette, Karl, & Rust, 2006; Vilnai-Yavetz & Rafaeli, 2011; Warhurst & Nickson, 2007), but it is largely useful in answering questions of what attire’s effect is, not whether attire should be a thing. Think, for an analog, of research on the impact of applicant physical beauty on interview performance—we appreciate, from empirical research, that it is a thing, but our reaction tends to be trying to lock down the interview process to avoid this bias, not incorporating cosmetic surgery and cosmetics recommendations into our consultancy portfolio. In the end, the research that has been done doesn’t help, in our opinion, answer the question of “why do I-O people tolerate dress codes?”
- We asked one question from many possible ones; specifically, we asked our respondents to reflect on the dress codes that are in effect (explicitly or implicitly) at their places of work. We did this not because we were actually interested in those dress codes (though we did get some interesting tidbits out of those) but rather because we wanted to follow up on that question with two paths of follow-up considerations:
a. If you are responsible for setting these codes, do you have any justification for doing so? If so, is that justification scientific? If not (to either question), how do you countenance setting the codes?
b. If you are subject to these codes, how do you, as a member of a field that researches such things (and thus as, more than the vast majority of other professionals, a candidate for dissonance about the lack of justification for the same), you know, feel about them2?
Are There Dress Codes for I-O Folks?
Though, as we said, we’re more interested in the “why” than the “whether,” if there are no dress codes (explicit or implicit), we’re barking up the wrong tree. So?
- An I-O psychologist at a large national retailer (hereinafter “Retail”) reported that, at their hippy place of employment, people come in in shorts and flip-flops and have a very lenient dress code. They note that at their retail locations (i.e., not the place of employment for most I-O folks), the dress codes are lenient—focused on not promoting outside companies and wearing necessary safety equipment.
- An academic (hereinafter “Academic”) shared that their code was quite formal/professional, with most men wearing a suit3 and women wearing dresses or pants/blazer; rarely does one see jeans, t-shirts, or sweaters.
- Anthony S. Boyce, partner in Aon’s Assessment, Selection, and Leadership practice, was the first to explicitly point to a “policy” (viz. Business Casual) but noted that his office is veering towards Smart Casual.4
- Robert Hogan, PhD, President, Hogan Assessment Systems,5 noted that, before 2000, his organization would expect coats and ties during client visits but that this has stopped, partly because clients have dressed down so significantly. Presently, they leave people alone regarding dress code as long as those people perform well; this results in a variety of levels of concern about appearance.
Okay, so everything from pretty much no dress code (Retail) to business casual/Smart Casual (Boyce) to fairly strict formality (Academic), and then a shop where people are all over the map (Hogan). Notably, some folks reported casual Fridays and the absence of any policy/expectation for offices that have no client contact, so there’s nuance here as well.
Why Are There Dress Codes for I-O Folks?
Two major categories of answers here:
- Culture/tradition. Academic pointed out that there is nothing explicit about their dress “code”; it’s just a practice carried out by others. Hogan described an intriguing system of status hierarchy, dress rules, maturation, and the distinction between informality and slovenliness (viz. that what many call casual he sees more as slovenly); this deserves its own separate treatment but is largely beyond the scope of this column; ask Hogan.6
- Instrumentality. Retail pointed out that the only regulation was to wear nothing offensive7; Boyce and Hogan both pointed to wanting to demonstrate to clients that the I-O folks deserve the clients’ money (Boyce)/the I-O folks need to look like adults to visit clients (Hogan); Academic teaches students (who dress formally) and would find it inappropriate to teach in sneakers or jeans.
Notably, our respondents didn’t point to any theoretical/empirical work as a justification; though Academic points out the work that indicates that formal attire leads to positive social outcomes, this doesn’t seem to be the basis for the setting of these codes (at least according to those with whom we spoke). Academic also pointed to fashion trends, which (a) are beyond our area of expertise and (b) may explain the specific cut of a suit that a consultant wears but don’t, in our opinion, explain why the consultant is wearing a suit in the first place.
What of the Trend Toward [Casual]8?
Boyce points out that society in general is trending away from formality, be it in language, silverware, or, you know, attire. Hogan has resorted to picking his battles; those folks in research, IT, and marketing he has given up on because they, largely, can’t embarrass him in public, while he will take it upon himself to cart off promising consultants to a tailor in Tulsa to get them appropriate business attire so that they won’t feel embarrassed in front of high-profile clients. Retail, who used to be subjected to formal dress codes but is no longer, is all about the trend toward informality.9 Academic, who operates within a formal workplace, thinks that people should be able to wear whatever they want as long as they are dressed appropriately10 and thus thinks that the trend toward casual is a good one.
The “Why” section, above, carries the core of the content here. Here’s why: It is our presumption/assertion that I-O advocates for basing practices in theory and/or evidence. We assume that this advocacy points inwards as well—that is, that I-O thinks that I-O should use I-O to do I-O.[xi] Workplace-attire policies, as far as we can tell (as far as these folks reported), are not examples of such evidence-based practices, however. They could be, at least partially; if our respondents had said “well, the science indicates that a consultant in a suit gets X% more from a client than a consultant in cargo shorts,” that would be something. We (the authors) still wouldn’t be satisfied, as this would be comparable to “a consultant with a lucky rabbit’s foot” or, troubling for an additional reason, “a white male consultant.” We want to know not only that it works but also how it works, and as far as we can tell, our field simply isn’t there yet.
But recall, we didn’t see that answer. Folks reported instrumentality (wowing clients, showing respect; even Retail indicated that few would wear Birkenstocks to a board meeting) and culture/tradition, but even the instrumentality was based on culture/tradition (not on science—even on what is available—and particularly not on good theoretically anchored, causally descriptive science).
This topic is interesting to us for several reasons: because there is room for theoretical and empirical scientific work here, because arbitrariness (or tradition) rub us the wrong way, and because this is an actual, costly, inconvenient thing. Retail points out that they worked in a hot climate where pantyhose and suit jackets were (variously) required. In a previous I-Opener, the author reported some preliminary information about the cost of professional (above and beyond ordinary) attire for graduate students.
Despite these inconveniences, employees and students are incentivized to conform to whichever dress code their organization’s culture dictates. Choosing not to dress like one’s peers may not result in formal reprimanding but could create an uncomfortable work environment for someone who doesn’t feel like they fit in. Those who are uncomfortable with or inconvenienced by dress codes are left with a choice of bearing the cost of conforming or facing the negative consequences of not doing so. This pressure to conform can diminish diversity and discourage inclusivity in the workplace. In our opinion, those are valuable things to give up for seemingly arbitrary policies. There are other reasons, personal expression, evidence of individual uniqueness, and of course a long discussion about why we wear casual clothing outside of work (rather than suits, if we like them so much), but we’re running out of space here. As usual, we ask the reader:
What do you think?
Does your experience match with those upon which we reported here?
If you have any, are your dress-code particulars justified?
Are those justifications based in science?
Adomaitis, A. D., & Johnson, K. K. (2005). Casual versus formal uniforms: flight attendants' self-perceptions and perceived appraisals by others. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 23(2), 88-101.
Barrick, M. R., Shaffer, J. A., & DeGrassi, S. W. (2009). What you see may not be what you get: Relationships among self-presentation tactics and ratings of interview and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(6), 1394.
Forsythe, S. M., Drake, M. F., & Cox, C. A. (1984). Dress as an influence on the perceptions of management characteristics in women. Home Economics Research Journal, 13(2), 112-121.
Galin, A., & Benoliel, B. (1990). Does the way you dress affect your performance rating. Personnel, 67(8), 49-52.
Karl, K. A., Hall, L. M., & Peluchette, J. V. (2013). City employee perceptions of the impact of dress and appearance: You are what you wear. Public Personnel Management, 42(3), 452-470.
Karl, K., Peluchette, J. V. E., & Hall, L. M. (2016). Employee beliefs regarding the impact of unconventional appearance on customers in Mexico and Turkey. Employee Relations, 38(2), 163-181.
Peluchette, J. V., Karl, K., & Rust, K. (2006). Dressing to impress: Beliefs and attitudes regarding workplace attire. Journal of Business and Psychology, 21(1), 45-63.
Vilnai-Yavetz, I., & Rafaeli, A. (2011). The effects of a service provider's messy appearance on customer reactions. Services Marketing Quarterly, 32(3), 161-180.
Warhurst, C., & Nickson, D. (2007). Employee experience of aesthetic labour in retail and hospitality. Work, Employment & Society, 21(1), 103-120.
1 Irony in the sense that the lack of scientific evidence for dress codes is bothering us, not in the sense that the I-Opener tends to be a result of science—which, for the record, it doesn’t.
2 The length of each of these four numbered points (including associated subordinate points but excluding citations) can be modeled perfectly by the equation y = 12 + (x-1) * 48, where x indicates the number of the list element and y is the number of words in that element. You thought that we were haphazard and extemporaneous in our writing. I mean, you’re mostly right.
3 But with no tie! Liberty, sweet liberty!
4 No t-shirts or sneakers, but nice jeans are okay.
5 The only of our respondents who indicated that this topic was interesting to him.
6 Seriously! As indicated, he’s interested in this—it’ll make for an engaging conversation (we promise). We are likely doing Hogan a disservice in watering down his thoughts/passion here.
7 We chose to not dive down that particular rabbit hole.
8Hogan would be resistant of our characterization of dress codes/trends moving toward “casual” attire, we suspect.
11 “I-O, I-O, get dressed for work, let’s go!” Get it, because it takes longer to put on dress clothes?