The Low-Down On Dressing-Down

May 11, 2017

By Judith Rasband

It’s time to explode the myth! Contrary to popular belief, dress-down days in the workplace bring a decrease in mannerly behavior and productivity, along with an increase in harassment litigation within corporate settings.

Scott Kingdom, Managing Director or the Chicago office of Korn Ferry International, the nation’s largest executive search firm, stated that his Chicago office experimented with casual dress-down policy during the summer of 1999. His management team noticed a “pronounced casual nature and approach to work and a growing sloppiness.” Scott and his team converted their offices back to suited business dress, effective Labor Day, 1999. Since then, business produced by Scott’s office has doubled!

Dr. Jeffrey L. Magee, consulting research psychologist surveyed 500 firms, from small business (100 employees and more) and Fortune 500 companies to associations. The survey was conducted from the Third Quarter 1997 through the Third Quarter 1998. Data was collected during on-site consultations, focus groups, and training workshops, through teleconference calls, and direct mail survey letters. Respondents were primarily through Human Resources, Personnel, Vice President of Operations, Presidents, and CEOs.

As predicted in the 1995 publication “America’s Going Down The Tube In A T-Shirt”, continually relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners, relaxed morals, relaxed productivity, and loss of individuality. Magee’s research findings reveal specifics:

  • Decrease in ethical behavior.
  • Decrease in polite, mannerly behavior.
  • Increase in gutter language and conversation.
  • Decrease in morality.
  • Increase in provocative actions.
  • Decrease in productivity and overall quality of work.
  • Decrease in commitment and company loyalty.
  • Increase in complaints to HR.
  • Increase in litigation.
  • Increase in tardiness.

The professional image and attitude needed by 80% in the marketplace is lost.

People push a casual dress policy to extreme limits of acceptability. Complaints increase regarding hygiene problems and exposed body areas (armpits, midriffs, feet), adding up to attention diverted from business issues to behavior issues.

People push the limits of acceptable actions once a casual dress policy has been introduced. Clothes considered acceptable for “bar hopping” and/or “dance clubs” as well as clothing with “offensive sayings” imprinted on them are worn by employees—thus adding to the increase in comments, conversations, gestures, provocative actions, and harassment considered to be offensive.

Jackson Lewis, the nation’s largest law firm, specializing in personnel issues, polled more than a thousand human resource executives who had implemented a dress down policy. They reported a 30% “rise in flirtatious behavior,” contributing to the increase in sexual harassment lawsuits. Tension among personnel and complaints (official and unofficial) have risen. All of which takes the attention and focus off of what employees are being hired and paid to do.

Cliques, tardiness, late from breaks and lunch, early departures or closing down lines of production early in an attempt to leave on time are more of a concern in recent years since casual dress. Productivity and quality of work is an area of great concern from respondents as well as management. Respondents felt that people are not as focused, committed, or as loyal to their job, their team-mates or employers as before. The more the environment relaxed, the more employees wanted, contributing to an over-all impression of “Me’ism” which actually worked against the concept of “teams.”

Commerce Clearing House’s Human Resource Service cites the following example: “On one of the casual days at your company you see a conversations between two men wearing golf shirts. As you approach them you hear talk of strategic issues, but the next thing you hear is ‘Go To Hell.’ Why the rudeness?”

CCH quotes a Human Resource Manager as follows, “Casual dress puts people in a different mindset. Business is literally giving employees opportunity to become more casual in their interactions. Business clothes gave structure to the workplace and fostered structured discourse. As that structure disappears there is an erosion of that behavior.”

Overall, the more relaxed the dress code in extrovert environments, the higher the level of concern was by HR as to less professionalism and productivity in the workplace. And, the higher the level of complaint was by customers or individuals that come into contact with them from the outside world. The more introvert the environment, the less the concern on some issues.

Research in psychology, sociology, family and consumer science, shows a direct correlation between how one dresses and how one thinks, feels, and acts or behaves, and how others react or respond. The clothing communicates to the individual as well as to others. The clothing can work for us or, as we see from these research results, it can work against us. Casual clothing in the workplace can work only if the environment is structured with appropriate limits on the definition of “business casual” dress, and the message it conveys to both self and others.