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  What’s your view on office dress codes? Do you still see the value in formal office dress? To a degree your answer is likely to depend upon the industry you work in.

Or perhaps you haven’t thought about it before but just go with the flow of how people around you are dressed.

However, there is no doubt that we all make assumptions and perceptions about people from their personal image, even though these may be subconscious. It’s noticeable in everyday life, if you go to a shop smartly dressed, not necessarily in business dress but in smarter clothes you are more likely to get good service than being far more casually attired. Why is this? How we present ourselves has an impact on what people think of us – if we have made an effort with our appearance then people naturally give us a higher social and financial status. It may seem wrong that they treat us differently but it’s a reality.

The same perceptions are at work all the time in the office. How we present ourselves not only affects how we feel about ourselves but how others are likely to respond. For business, this deserves consideration, a fair amount of consideration. Not just for our individual careers but for the success of our organisation. In business today, even if our role is not client/customer facing, we communicate the values of the company we work for in how we are which is a package of what we deliver but also what image we present through our appearance, body language and communication skills. Nowadays, many roles have a networking element so we are truly the face of our company.

To focus on appearance, changes in recent years have caused more opportunity for variation in appearance. A relaxation of dress codes, even in some of the more formal professions such as law and accountancy, particularly when client meetings are not taking place has meant less clarity about the expectations for personal appearance at work. This has often stemmed from the introduction of ‘dress down Friday’, some companies and individuals are now finding it hard to accept the results in the office environment.

From standard 3 piece suits earlier in the 20th Century relaxing to today’s 2 piece lounge suit for formal work wear, dress codes have undergone a lot of change. In most of our lifetimes, formal suits were the standard office ‘uniform’ with a focus on ‘power dressing’ in the 1980s. However, it is now widely accepted that suits are not the norm in all working environments particularly outside of banking and finance and the legal profession.

Many organisations started to relax the dressing style on Fridays but without really defining what that meant, what is ‘business casual’, ‘smart casual’? Problem number one was that it wasn’t defined; problem two was having been seen dressed in a more relaxed style on Fridays, individuals relaxed their dressing on other days too.

A lot of people would argue that comfort is important at work. To a point this is true, we need to feel comfortable in who we are and confident not just in the work we produce but how we come across. However, going down the route of being ‘at home’ comfortable can lead to a lower level of professionalism and lack of attention to our appearance. This may lead to inferences about our attitude to our work too.

Whilst more casual dressing can be fine, particularly in more relaxed industries such as IT and music; it seems that in some cases it has gone too far which can have negative outcomes for the business:

  • If an organisation is client/customer or even supplier/stakeholder facing then what image is it really presenting? What message could this send about the work it does? Particularly if there’s no consistency in team appearance across the organisation
  • Lack of respect for the rest of the team – I have heard client examples of no shoes in the office and strappy, revealing tops that clearly show underwear and a lot more in Summer to name just a couple and these were in the Finance industry…
There’s no doubt that the appearance and presentation of individuals together with the service delivered impacts business success and the bottom line. Nowadays, there is a lot of competition – personal presentation and positive stand out are vital to presenting a professional and differentiated image. Very few organisations consider the personal impact of their teams so there is an opportunity to stand out positively and impact your business. So, some considerations for thinking about what image you and your team are presenting at work through personal image:
  • It is worth defining what level of dress is expected – this may differ between Friday versus the other days or perhaps when meeting clients and when not but having clarity means there will be a clear idea of ‘the way we do things around here’ and a consistent external image
  • It is possible to be dressed more casually and present a positive image but attention to detail and personal grooming are still very important. If someone doesn’t look like they have bothered with themselves then they are unlikely to inspire confidence that they will make the best work effort
  • Think about what people expect. It’s not necessarily that everyone should be in a suit. At a networking meeting, I often get asked about what people should wear. You would generally expect an accountant to be in a suit but not a plumber or a personal trainer. Although you would still expect them to be clean and well presented
  • Think about how the external people the team interacts with are dressed. It does depend on the relationship but generally more than one dress code level difference is not good as it puts distance between the two and makes engaging more difficult
  • Remember casual dressing often makes people look younger – this can create credibility issues particularly if you have a younger team.
So it is worth reflecting on how improving the image of your people could impact your bottom line and the work environment too.
  • What image are your team really presenting?
  • What are they communicating about themselves and the organisation?
It’s about reflecting on what you/your organisation stand for, what values you want to communicate and who you interact with so you can define a way forward.

Joanna Gaudoin runs Inside Out, an image consultancy that specialises in supporting professional individuals and organisations to maximise their impact for success by developing a clear, positive and professional image through appearance, body language and communication skills.

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