Dressed for Excess

Sure, dress codes are more relaxed. But that doesn't mean a good manager tolerates employees who look like disco denizens or refugees from a biker beer blast

By Karen E. Klein

Q: Does what an employee is allowed to wear in the office affect their attitude toward work? I am trying to develop a dress code.

---- Marilyn Herrera, Dallas

A: There has long been an established correlation between dress and the way people feel and behave, and how others react to them. Experts say changes in appearance can modify a person's actions and attitudes -- and definitely alter how other people perceive them. "In mental- and behavioral-health institutions, when a patient starts taking care of his appearance, it is considered a clear sign of recovery," says Angie Michael, president of Image Resource Group Inc., in Washington, D.C.

The link between dress, grooming, and work habits has been extensively examined, with one of the most recent studies looking into the impact of "business casual" wear. When Dr. Jeffrey L. Magee, a consulting research psychologist, surveyed 500 companies ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies in 1997 and 1998, he found that more relaxed dress codes did nothing to boost productivity or employee morale. On the contrary, his study concluded that relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners, relaxed morals, and relaxed productivity.


  Even more disturbing, Magee noted a decrease in ethical behavior, as well as more gutter language and conversation -- which helps to explain why he also found an increase in the number of complaints to human resources departments. Tardiness also increased, Magee found, as did a decrease in morality. "People have pushed casual dress to the limits of acceptability," Michael says. "Employees are wearing clothing that was once only acceptable for bar hopping and dance clubs."

Now that less formal attire has become the norm in many workplaces, an employee who comes to work in a three-piece suit and tie when his co-workers are in khakis and short-sleeves may be regarded as out-of-place by colleagues -- even by clients. And a woman attending a meeting at a construction site isn't likely to feel effective or comfortable in high heels and fine jewelry.

The key to a successful casual dress policy is making sure that employees understand they should be neat, appropriate, and conservative even while sporting more relaxed attire, experts say. Ripped jeans, rumpled T-shirts, open-toe stiletos, and baseball caps do not reflect well on employees or project a positive image about their companies. Clothes that bare large areas of skin -- halter tops, miniskirts, plunging necklines, and the like -- are not only inappropriate and but also can contribute to personnel problems and claims of sexual harassment, warns image consultant Mary Lou Andre. "When in doubt, don't wear it," is her rule of thumb.

Accessories should be similarly inconspicuous, she believes. While tattoos and multiple body-piercings are certainly striking, they won't give management or clients the impression that an employee is serious about work.


  Given the changes and resulting confusion over the last couple of decades, it is probably a very good idea to develop and implement a dress-code policy. Just don't forget to solicit input from your employees as part of your research. In fact, you may want to set up an employee committee to study other dress codes in your industry and then come up with some recommendations. That way, whatever shape the final policy takes, it will not be viewed as a draconian edict imposed by management.

You can find more information on employee relations at various Web sites, including the Society for Human Resources Managers, www.shrm.org. Michael's book, Business Casual Made Easy, co-authored by Ilene Amiel, is another resource you may want to check out. And image consultant Mary Lou Andre, president of the Needham (Mass.)-based Organization by Design, offers a Web site, www.dressingwell.com, that includes sample dress-code policies and guidelines about what constitutes appropriate clothing in the light of the sort of business you are in, your employees' work situation, their interactions, the region of the country, and the way they want their colleagues and clients to perceive them.

Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.