Is dressing for success still required?

Casual attire has become the norm in most workplaces. Certain circumstances call for a bit more formality, though, and fundamentals of decorum must still prevail.

Golf is a game of stretch goals.

Although some are fairly common, such as scoring a birdie, others are more elusive. The most famous of these white whale goals is the hole-in-one.

Imagine, then, being able a check a hole-in-one off your bucket list, and doing so in Scotland at the cradle of golf, St. Andrews. For many golfers, it’s the stuff of dreams.

Losing sight of something exceptional

For my friend Scott, it was a dream that became a reality last April. However, what made Scott’s experience unusual was that he was wearing jeans—a blatant violation of golf’s widely accepted dress code, especially in the game’s birthplace.

Shortly afterward, Scott shared a photo of his exciting achievement on social media, as is customary. Some folks congratulated him and shared their excitement; others focused solely on his clothing.

By focusing on the fact that he was wearing jeans, they lost track of his having done something exceptional.

Taking this story to the business world makes for an interesting discussion. Of course, achievement is everyone’s top priority. If performance and formality were directly proportional, everyone would choose success.

It’s not about what you wear

Historically, the assumption has been this: You have to dress for success.

Scott’s achievement is an exception to that rule, but others are picking up on the fact that skill and achievement aren’t dictated by what you wear. HR consultant Sharon Lauby recently argued that you shouldn’t recruit based on attire. Illustrating this point, the White House announced in August that its coders are no longer required to wear a tie at work.

It appears the winds of office dress code change are blowing.

Still, we should be careful not to go too far with this trend toward casual clothing. Though it is clear that one doesn’t have to dress for success and that performance takes priority over attire, there are still situations in which you want your employees to dress for the occasion.

The problem—and a solution

Despite their new-found attire freedoms, even the White House coders wear a suit and tie to meet with the president. The problem here is that, unless your boss is the leader of the free world, it can be difficult to define what those occasions actually are.

Short of the most obvious of occasions, the line marking appropriate occasions can be hard to find. However, given that even the White House has caught on that dress code can be a factor in attracting the best talent, setting reasonable, contemporary expectations for attire is important.

Here are a few rules of thumb to consider:

  • Your comfortable clothes shouldn’t make any of your co-workers uncomfortable.
  • Customer-facing employees should dress to or slightly above their customer’s standards in face-to-face meetings.
  • Formal dress should be the default for public appearances, meetings with public officials or foreign dignitaries, or meetings for new business opportunities.

Set a few ground rules

Setting a few easy-to-understand guidelines will give you peace of mind, and you’ll still project a culture that won’t get in the way of recruiting and retaining top talent. In most cases, your employees will form their own reasonable consensus dress code if left to their own devices—as you would expect any group of adults to do.

In the end, just be happy when your employees hit holes-in-one, and don’t worry so much about what they are wearing when they do it.

John Scott is a customer success manager for PerformYard, a Web-based benefits, performance, and HR software company. You can connect with him at @PerformYard and on the PerformYard blog, where a version of this article first appeared.

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