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Is There Any Point to Dress Codes at Work?

Recently, in London, we had a spell of unusually hot weather and I noticed it sparked a few conversations about what it is appropriate to wear at work.

A female friend of mine was considering whether it would be appropriate or inappropriate to wear a top with spaghetti straps in the office (she didn’t).

Another friend, a male, who works in a bank was heading into the office but wasn’t sure whether he could wear shorts, despite the intense heat (he didn’t).

Since the pandemic, dress codes seem to have relaxed in the workplace, but still, clearly, they are pervasive. However, (assuming you are not showing any body parts you wouldn’t normally show in public), why does it matter if we display our shoulders or legs at work?

Despite searching, I could find little to no scientific evidence showing that how people dress actually affects subsequent performance.

What I did discover though, is that the topic of how we dress at work is actually about impression management.

“Impression management” is something we all do to try and present the best view of ourselves at work. It is a core part of social desirability—the normal human desire to be viewed favourably by others.

In the workplace, impression management is something we do (consciously or unconsciously), because it helps us to trigger a co-worker or client’s beliefs about “what good looks like.” If “good looks like” someone in a suit, that’s what we try to emulate.

You can essentially think of impression management as something we do to leverage—in our favour—the biases we know that others have in our favour.

And this starts to get to why people find it so hard to break dress code norms. Such norms are hard-wired into how we all make sense of the world and our interactions with others in it.

But are the norms well-founded? Are we sticking to them for good reason?

A number of studies have been run on impression management and there is, again, little evidence of a link between strong impression management and strong performance.

There is some evidence of a relationship with interview success, particularly during unstructured interviews, but the effect drops off once it comes to in-role performance.

It seems that social desirability and impression management are so pervasive in our conscious and subconscious cognitive processes that it is hard to shake them, despite their not being related to work performance.

There may be reasons for our associating them with performance, however. Social desirability tends to be higher in those with certain personality traits—namely emotional stability (the reverse of neuroticism), conscientiousness and extroversion.

In turn, research has shown that the personality traits of emotional stability and conscientiousness have been shown to be the biggest predictors of performance; that is, employees who display those traits are more likely to be strong performers.

It may be that in the workplace, the people who present themselves in a more socially desirable way are also those who have the personality traits that are most linked to performance—and we tend to confuse the two.

Of course, just because the traits are linked to performance does not mean that they are inherently better. Part of the diversity, equity and inclusion work undertaken in many organisations is a recognition that the performance system (which is likely a mix of relationships and measurements) rewards certain types of traits over others.

And if we can change the system to recognise a broader range of traits as being positive (e.g. introversion as well as extroversion), we will ultimately result in getting better performance out of a wider range of people.

As to the question of whether you should wear spaghetti straps or shorts at work, it is hard to find evidence to say that it is related to performance.

However, it is impossible to ignore that in some organisations, sadly, performance is as much perception as reality. And if you are going to break a social norm (and interfere with the perception), you had better be ready to demonstrate the reality of your performance.

If, however, you can pull it off, it is the only way to change some of the hard-wiring we all have, and bring about social change in our workplaces.

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