Dress Codes in the Workplace: Effects on Organizational Culture

By Angie Shinn '12, Ali Swigart '12, Ashley Gritters '12 and Matt Schmailzl '11

Organizational Behavior

For the piece on dress codes, students were to work as a team to complete a research paper on an organizational behavior topic. I selected this project because of the depth of research, it followed all of the specific guidelines, and it was well-written on a timely topic.

-Jann Freed


The purpose of this paper is to establish the effect of dress codes on organizational culture, employee morale, productivity, and performance. Three categories of dress codes have been established: formal, business casual, and casual. The paper describes the downsides of the three categories of dress, the different organizational climates each policy creates, and the various perceptions of the employee, clients, coworkers, and uppermanagement.

The paper also highlights the dress code trends throughout the past 30 years and explanations of implemented policy changes. There are many stipulations to consider before a company should apply a new dress code. This paper outlines the guidelines for dress code modification, as well as recommendations for the employees. If a new dress code policy is implemented, these guidelines will ease the transition and will minimize negative reactions to organizational change.


Over the last 30 years, dress codes throughout corporations in the United States have undergone drastic changes. In the workplace, change has been most prominently seen in the areas of casual, business casual, and formal codes of dress. Research and analysis has confirmed that a corporation’s specified dress code policy has an interrelated effect on employee behavior, performance, and productivity.

“Dress is clearly a significant means of selfidentification and role definition. Personal styles have great psychological implications for both the wearer and the person interacting with the wearer” (Bowman & Hooper, 1991, p. 330). An organization’s dress code affects employees’ perceptions of the quality of their performance (Black & DiNardo, 1994; Peluchette & Karl, 2007). Additionally, an individual’s style of dress influences how colleagues, clients, and uppermanagement perceive them.

Dress code policies are one visual expression of the culture of an organization. Therefore, workplace attire is a key component in establishing the company’s desired organizational culture (Maysonave, 2001; McCarty, 2010; Wood & Benitez, 2003). The extent of formality of a dress code sets the stage for the type of environment the company wishes to create. If teamwork and unity are strong values in the organization, reducing status differences by standardizing the dress code among all employees will reinforce these organizational values. For example, all employees at Toyota Corporation wear polo shirts and khakis as a way of expressing a unified, team-oriented culture. Also, a casual dress code can help communicate a fun and friendly organizational culture. This may result in employees feeling empowered to deliver exceptional customer service which, in turn, strengthens the company’s fundamental value of providing service excellence (Peluchette & Karl, 2007).

Assumptions have been made regarding the relationship between a casual dress code and employee productivity. While initially the correlation was favorable, over time it has become a distraction to employees, as well as a liability for organizations. According to a survey of over one thousand human resource executives, almost half of the companies with a casual dress-down policy reported a significant increase in tardiness, absenteeism, and flirtatious behavior (Egodigwe & Alleyne, 2003). Another survey concluded that casual dress may lead to a casual work ethic (Peluchette & Karl, 2007, p. 349-350). In contrast, employees who dress formally (i.e. a suit and tie), are considered to have high credibility, are taken more seriously, and are more likely to be viewed as uppermanagement material from top executives (Chaney & Lyden, 1999; Wood & Benitez, 2003).

The purpose of this paper is to establish the correlation between dress code in the workplace and employee performance and morale. Three categories of dress codes will be discussed: casual, business casual, and formal, or sometimes referred to as traditional. While a more casual approach may boost employee morale and comfort, it may have a negative effect on performance (Lee, 2005). In addition to reviewing the literature of this topic, interviews with three managers have been included to illustrate how each company’s dress code is perceived to affect the performance and morale of employees.

History of Dress Code in the Workplace

Prior to the 1990s, workplace attire was predominantly formal, consisting of suits for both men and women. “The boundaries between work and after-work fashion were vividly clear: executive attire in the office, casual attire at home” (Lee, 2005, p. 32). This commonality among most office settings began shifting towards a more casual manner of dress. According to Mary Lou Andre, editor of, “Business casual first entered the marketplace in the early ‘90s, during the last recession when folks were doing a lot of lay-offs. The people left behind had more work to do, less benefits, and fewer people to do [the work]” (Vangen, 2002, p. 12). This trend was aided by the invention of the Dockers brand in 1986, which allowed for a rise in the more affordable business casual manner of dress (Kiddie, 2009; McPherson, 1997; Sloan, 2000).

Soon after the recession began, the introduction of internet business drove business dress codes to become even more “dressdown.” This informal apparel ranged from t-shirts and jeans to polo shirts and khakis. By the mid to late nineties, business casual dress, at least on certain days, had become the norm for many major firms such as American Express, CitiBank, and IBM (Chaney & Lyden, 1999). As of June 1997, 83 % of U.S. companies surveyed had some form of casual dress policy (Boles, 1997). Levi Strauss & Company, creator of the Dockers brand, says, “The casual look was never meant to replace traditional Mondaythrough- Thursday business attire” (McPherson, 1997, p. 135).

From 1996 to 1999, retailers of formal office attire suffered a sharp drop in sales (Joans, 1996; Sloan, 2000). While casual dress was becoming more common, many organizations began to see a need for implementing written policies as employees started to dress as if they were headed to the playground rather than upholding their professional status. Early in the twentyfirst century, frustrated by worker’s inappropriate office attire, some companies hired wardrobe consultants to help employees with the “dos and don’ts” of corporate fashion (Parekh, 2005; Sloan, 2000; Spitznagel, 2010). Businesses mandating a return to formal policy typically believed that people were coming to work dressed too casually. Companies argued that a casual look can promote a laxness and has a negative impact on productivity (McIntyre, 1998; Maysonave, 2001).

Dress codes changed from casual to more formal styles around 2002 as major financial firms were starting to implement dress policies. This trend was reiterated by an increase in the sale of business suits (Kiddie, 2009). Corporations were particularly concerned with employees showing up with radical changes to their wardrobe such as piercings, stained clothing, and not properly groomed, creating a sloppy overall appearance. This resulted in some companies reinstating a suit and tie rule. According to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management, the percentage of casual dress policies dropped from 53 % in 2002 to 38 % in 2006 (Sowa, 2007; Wood & Benitez, 2003). The current trend is to dress for success, but the current styles permit various colors and have a more tailored, modern look. “Natural fibers, multiple buttons, and bolder ties and shirts are new trends, as America gets back to business” (Feingold, 2001, p. 3).

Elaborate changes in dress codes have occurred in the past twenty years, and there are endless combinations of dress code policies among organizations. However, the style of dress code can be placed on a continuum, ranging from casual to formal, and can be categorized into one of three categories: casual, business casual, and formal.

Trends in Casual Dress

Casual dress code policies originated after a short recession in the nineties, which caused many companies to downsize. The internet was introduced, compounding the need for long office hours and combined with a slump in the economy caused companies to adopt a more cost-effective dress policy (Black & DiNardo, 1994; Vangen, 2002). This new way of dressing paved the way for future corporate policy, allowing workers to shy away from the stuffy “old man in a tie” look to a more modern, comfortable look.

Dressing casually for work can increase employee performance and morale (Black & Dinardo, 1994). After a long day, a casually dressed employee can transition from work to home life with ease by sparing the time of undressing out of nice black shoes and pants just to go to out. Some companies argued against formal wear, referring to a 1999 survey that shows: “Companies that embraced casual business attire enjoyed a 40 % increase in productivity” (Kiddie, 2009, p. 352). This is an astounding growth for any company. Unfortunately, the initial upsurge of productivity did not last.

The downsides of casual workplace attire were soon realized. Damaged first impressions may be a result of dressing too casually at work, as unexpected meetings with clients and upper-management often arise. Additionally, a casually dressed employee may be perceived as unprofessional, incompetent, under-qualified, or uncommitted (Maysonave, 2001). Harry Beckwith, author of the book Selling the Invisible, says, “People do not simply form impressions, they become anchored to them. Busy people are apt to make snap judgments and then base all their later decisions on them” (Maysonave, 2001, p. 46).

Casual dress codes enhance an organizational culture of fun and friendliness, and some dot-com giants still use this method. For most companies, however, casual dress is inconsistent with business values and objectives because it communicates less credibility (Chaney & Lyden, 1999). Jill Bremer, an image coach and the owner of Bremer Communications, describes the threat of a “double-edged sword” when dress codes in the workplace become too relaxed. Although employee morale is usually positively affected by casual dress policies, professionalism suffers as a result (Parekh, 2005; Wood & Benitez, 2003). Therefore, a change was needed. The next category of dress code is the “happy medium” between the two extremes of casual and formal.

Trends in Business Casual Dress

The application of a business casual dress code has been seen as a highly valued employee benefit (McIntyre, 1998). “Millions of people are perplexed by the oxymoron ‘business casual’” (Maysonave, 2001, p. 46). Business casual dress includes clothing that is more relaxed and casual, but still projects a professional, business-like image. In today’s business world, business casual is often depicted by khakis or black pants with a collared shirt (“Business Attire,” 2008; Chaney & Lyden, 1999).

Business casual attire has allowed employees freedom from the costs associated with formal business attire, as well as giving them the ability to feel more relaxed while at work. According to Field, (2000), “Monday through Thursday, men have to wear shirts with collars and muted patterns; Fridays, Hawaiian shirts are O.K.” (p. 180). This is just one specific example from a company that follows business casual dress code.

Over time, business casual attire has become too casual. Vague written policies that only state acceptable attire, excluding specifics about inappropriate clothing, and employees continuously testing the dress codes’ boundaries contribute to this too-casual trend. This requires the company to reinforce or alter their written dress code. When modifications are made, it may be necessary for corporations to have fashion shows, give handouts with images of the “dos and don’ts” of business casual, or hire consultants to conduct employee seminars about the new policy (Lee, 2005; Maysonave, 2001).

Another drawback of business casual dress is the lack of authority the image portrays. As a result of this perception, individuals may have a harder time progressing up the corporate ladder (Chaney & Lyden, 1999; Black & DiNardo, 1994). Perceptions of the individual by clients may also be negatively affected, as a lack of authority is usually related to a diminished sense of trustworthiness.

Employees must realize that it’s impossible to make a neutral statement. As human beings, we are always communicating on the nonverbal level, even when we are speaking. Apparel choices are a huge part of that communication. Clothing impacts an individual’s image, either positively or negatively. When inappropriate apparel choices are consistently made, a negative impact extends to the entire corporation by giving the impression the company is lax or unprofessional. In today’s digital world, first impressions and ongoing impressions—the visual aspects—have never been more critical. (Maysonave, 2001, p. 46)

This being said, corporations must recognize the importance of advising employees of appropriate business casual attire for their specific organization. According to a survey of 616 business students, the preferred business casual dress attire for women consisted of “khaki pants with a coordinating blazer, followed by navy dress slacks with a gray jacket…most appropriate for men were a navy sports coat with gray dress slacks or casual slacks with a polo shirt” (Chaney & Lyden, 1999, p. 15).

Knowing the day’s schedule of events allows an employee to dress to serve the client. Lydia Lee, a Certified Public Accountant, says she likes to dress down for her clients, which makes the meeting more personal (Morton, 2007). It can be beneficial to promote the personal relationship by coordinating styles with the client’s, based on their degree of formality. Thus, business casual dress is most effective in personal situations as it creates more approachability and relaxation, unlike formal attire which is typically thought of as a more rigid and authoritative style of dress (McCarty, 2007; “Business Casual,” 2006).

Although there are many benefits of business casual, these policies can be open to a wide range of interpretation due to unspecified guidelines and broad descriptions (Lee, 2005). There is also an economic trend that exists. The need for competitive advantage in a business is essential in today’s cut-throat business world. Hence, some companies have adopted a traditional code of dress in order to clear up confusion and gain a leg up on the competition (McIntyre, 1998; Maysonave, 2001; Peluchette & Karl, 2007).

Trends in Business Formal Dress

Formal attire in a business environment includes suits and ties for men, while women require business suits with pants or a long skirt and a jacket. The conventional colors of professional dress are usually navy and black. This style of dress in the office environment was the norm until the dot-com boom of the nineties, when many companies opted for a more casual dress code. During the chaos of the internet craze, many firms could not compete and went out of business. In order to regain their positions in the market, the remaining companies began shifting towards a more formal dress code (Peluchette & Karl, 2007). Facloni (1996) says, “If dressing down has an effect on productivity, it is only negative. If you look sharp, you are more likely to act sharp.” (p. 13). Staff writer at National Society of Professional Engineers, Eva Kaplan-Leiserson (2000), concurs, “The way you look directly affects the way you think, feel, and act… When you dress down, you sit down – the couch potato trend. Manners break down, you begin to feel down, and you’re not as effective” (p. 39).

Dressing more formally and professionally exudes a message of authority, credibility, confidence, and a success-oriented attitude (McCarty, 2007). Where a more casual dress may be enforced to promote closer relationships among employees, formal dress is used to enhance status, respect, and efficiency (Lee, 2005; Peluchette & Karl, 2007).

The way one dresses in the workplace affects how they perceive themselves, and also how they are perceived by others. According to Peluchette and Karl (2007), “people adopting a formal attire in the work place believed that they could influence others’ views, achieve greater power and influence, and attain work- related outcomes, such as advancement or compensation increases” (p. 348). Because of economic conditions and other insecurities, many workers have begun to believe that polishing their image will help keep them employed (Stankevich 2002; Wood & Benitez, 2003). This is quite a different belief than the economic downturn during the dot-com era in the nineties, when casual dress was thought to be a competitive advantage.

During the hiring process, the interviewee’s formality of dress is a key factor. Formal dress in an interview conveys professionalism, confidence, and a success-driven attitude (Fetto, 2002). Applicants who are appropriately dressed at interviews are taken more seriously and create a lasting first impression, which is critical in order to gain an upper hand on the other applicants. In one survey, “Seventy percent of executives said they perceive employees dressed in suits to be more senior level, while 60 % said those in suits are taken more seriously” (“Business Casual,” 2006, p. 16).

“Many studies have been done that show a definite correlation between how we dress and how we act. When we’re dressed in appropriate business attire, we tend to act in appropriate business fashion. When we’re not, we don’t,” (Lee, 2005, p. 36). Advocates of formal dress codes believe that casual dressers not only leave their professionalism open to question, but may also jeopardize the professional reputation of the company for which they work for. Target Corporation recognized this threat and revised its dress code from business casual to jacket and tie in November of 2004. Target hoped it would inspire other corporations and companies to follow suit, so to speak. In regards to poorlydressed employees, the CEO of Global Success Strategies, Inc., said “they’re great at their jobs; however, they don’t have any idea how to present themselves professionally with their clothing, their body language, and their etiquette” (Lee, 2005, p. 33).

Guidelines and Case Studies

Casual dress codes were supposed to make the work environment more comfortable and less restrictive. Instead, many people experienced dress-down confusion (Field, 2000). Introduction of more strict written policies has been prominently instituted by managers in small companies to Fortune 500 corporate offices. Maysonave (2001), points out that, “executives are frustrated by the negative impact sloppy clothing is having on their corporate culture” (p. 46). It is uncommon to have attire perceived as unworthy for work, but more than 11 % of administrative professionals have witnessed a coworker being sent home from work to change clothes (“Business Attire,” 2008). Organizations have used dress codes to promote organizational values, norms, beliefs, and culture by directly influencing employee attitudes through their dress (Peluchette & Karl, 2007). Perception, either self or observed, becomes the reality of the corporation.

In order to collect current information, a questionnaire that was emailed to three local companies to see what real-life dress policies are implemented in their workplace. The industries of the respondents were manufacturing, financial planning, banking, and heavy equipment sales. The people were Tim Meier, Vice President of Marketing at Collins Community Credit Union of Cedar Rapids; Randall Schmailzl, a financial planner at New York Life of Des Moines; and Laurie Haynes, Inventory Control Manager at Precision Pulley and Idler of Pella.

Laurie Haynes has always been affected by a dress policy at work. In the nineteen years she has been at the company, the most recent change to the dress code involved a committee. The committee had a presentation which included pictures to help spell out the dos and don’ts, and punishment was also discussed for each occurrence. In order to modify dress policy, involving wardrobe committees was a common theme in all the industries.

The financial planning and banking industries had formal attire in the office, but outside the office appointments are subject to the opinion of the employee. The heavy equipment sales company was the only industry without a formal written policy to dictate attire at work. Rick Boat, the manager of a Vermeer dealership outside of Pella, Iowa said the lack of a policy “is due to the clients served by the heavy equipment retail industry who are typically farmers and local construction businesses.”

Based on this research, two sets of guidelines for implementation of dress policy are provided: one set for the company, and one for the employee. Guidelines for the Company

1. Before implementing a new dress policy note the preferences of employees in order to more accurately predict the impact on employees’ attitudes and behaviors.

2. Ease into changes of the dress code policy. Making a major transition too abruptly could have a negative effect on employee productivity, performance, and budget (Peluchette & Karl, 2007).

3. Have a set of clearly defined guidelines for dos and don’ts about work place attire (Reddick, 2007).

4. Make sure employees are aware of the punishment involved in not adhering to the policy.

5. Be open to feedback from employees, and be able to reasonably explain why policy changes are needed.

6. Make sure every employee affected by the policy is aware of new expectations. The easiest way is through e-mail, a large group meeting, or an updated employee handbook.

7. Lead by example (Hanley, 2009).

Guidelines for the Employee

While many organizations have an established dress code, sometimes the policies are not clear. If an individual is unsure of the dress code expectations, they should start by building on their existing wardrobe. This means purchasing basics that they know are appropriate and that coordinate with what they already have in their wardrobe. It is best to invest in high quality natural fabrics such as 100% wool in colors that are neutral, such as navy, gray, and black (Egodigwe & Alleyne, 2003). The following are some tips for dressing for success:

1. Wear clothes that fit your body type (Kopulos, 2009).

2. Avoid wearing lowcut, see-through, or formfitting shirts (McCarty, 2010; Kopulos, 2009)

3. Cover tattoos and remove all body piercings (Kopulos, 2009).

4. Make sure hair is wellgroomed (Kopulos, 2009).

5. Remember: less is more. This rule applies for makeup, jewelry, perfume, and cologne (McCarty, 2010; Kopulos, 2009).

6. Wear shoes that are closed toed with little to no heel, and of neutral color (McCarty, 2010; Kopulos, 2009).

7. For women, make sure that skirts are no shorter than two inches above the knee (Kopulos, 2009).

Imagine Consultants/Coaching


Trevor Book, “Untitled,” Acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”

There’s an entire generation that grew up in what was a progressively more casual atmosphere and then entered the workforce in the period of time where business casual was really taking over, …very aware of the fact that if they’re expecting employees to upgrade their wardrobe, they need to provide something to soften the blow (Parekh, 2005, p. 28).

In 2002, a survey by Mervyn’s department store chain revealed that 90% of office workers did not know the difference between formal business attire, business casual, and casual dress (Spitznagel, 2010). Many organizations are turning to professional coaching and consulting firms while creating their dress code. Though professional seminars can run anywhere between 1000 and 4,000 dollars, corporations are spending money to ensure that they are not losing business because of the attire of their employees. “When competition is tough and business harder to come by, image management can give you the edge when it matters most, and it really can affect your bottom line” (Hanley, 2009, p. 27).

Image coaching helps managers to build cohesive teams and provides a consistency in company branding. According to Sally Hanley (2009), a professional image consultant for more than 15 years, says that image coaching helps to “build trust and reliability in the eyes of clients and colleagues alike” (p. 27). Some employees’ styles of dress become a problem due to poor definition of dress code specifics by the employer (Parekh, 2005). A great example of a dress code that gives examples of acceptable and unacceptable attire for both men and woman can be found in Appendix C on Figures 1 and 2. Another professional image coach, Jill Bremmer, says, “It really helps for them to hear it from somebody from the outside, who can be objective and be the messenger” (Parekh, 2005, p. 28).


The U.S. is an industrial powerhouse and Americans spend billions of dollars on business wardrobes, hairstyling, plastic surgery, and physical training to put them ahead of the competition. From economic progress to economic downturn, styles have changed vividly over the past 30 years. During the rise of America as an economic leader, many changes were taking place to the culture and it affected people’s opinions of what is appropriate business attire. After the introduction of the electronic age, businesses began to recognize the negative effects of a casual dress code. Managers realized that a classy, professional dress policy led to favorable business results. This idea carried over into the current global economy.

Casual dress codes encouraged a relaxed and friendly work environment for employees, but promoted lack of authority and professionalism. These downfalls helped lead to a more modern business casual look that was based on upholding standards of quality in the workplace. A business casual environment provides a happy medium between casual and formal dress codes. Workers show more efficiency and authority at the workplace when they are required to leave their natural, everyday attire.

The pinnacle of problems surrounding the business casual dress code is the definition of “business casual” itself. There is a broad spectrum of ways to interpret business casual, which is why employers using a business casual dress code should incorporate help of image consultants and clearly defining dos and don’ts with the use of visuals. To eliminate the ambiguity of business casual, some employers depend on a well-established formal code of dress. A formal dress policy can flatten an organization’s hierarchy and increase cohesiveness in the workplace. Although formal attire may be perceived as rigid or less friendly, clients generally have more confidence in an employee that is more formally dressed.

While a more casual approach may boost employee morale and comfort, it can have a negative effect on performance. Presenting oneself professionally at the workplace promotes selfconfidence and competence. Formal dress also enhances a positive perception from top managers and business clients. Organizations that show commitment to the personal development of their staff tend to have employees who feel more valued (Hanley, 2009). In order to balance professionalism with employee morale, organizations should consider having periodic casual days as an incentive to increase productivity and performance.

Research concludes that while there is no standard dress code, there is a system where each industry identifies trends to promote optimum efficiency. When creating and implementing a dress code, organizations must consider their mission statement and values, as well as the culture they wish to portray. As a visual expression of these factors, dress code policy carries immense significance for all business organizations.


Lars Larson, “Early morning,” Acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”

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