Are Company Dress Codes Beneficial for Peak Performance?

Corporate Dress Code

A long time ago (ok, the early 1980’s) the typical dress code for technology sales professionals (my career path) was a 3-piece business suit (the “uniform”) for men (dark blue or gray preferred, plus power tie, please) and blue or black business suite for women. IBM was #1 and their culture set the trend for semi-formal workday dress.

Then a funny thing happened by the late 80’s and early 90’s; thanks to Microsoft, not only was casual dress acceptable, but it was almost required — logo shirts, khakis and all. Somewhere in-between these two distinct time-periods casual Friday was borne. During this “interim” period much debate was focused on the supposed benefits or potential detrimental impact of casual dress in the workplace.

Not coincidentally our presidents during these periods were conservatives Reagan-Bush (1980-1992) and liberal Clinton (1992-2000). You could compare the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between these two time-periods to determine if one period was more productive than the other (Average $11T annually during the Clinton years and $8.6T during Reagan-Bush), but frankly the GDP has increased steadily almost every year since 1933. So that wouldn’t be a fair statistic. Even when you compare the GDP per capita (I tried this as well), the numbers tell the same story.

By the way, thanks to Silicon Valley, now almost anything goes — jeans, T-shirts, business suits, whatever. If it’s reasonably modest, it’s acceptable. Again, at least in the technology world.

So the questions arise; does an employee’s dress at work impact their job performance in any way? And almost more importantly, does it impact the organization’s client’s perception of the company?

To question #1, probably not. If you are comfortable, whether casually or more formally dressed, then your performance will likely be unchanged.

To question #2, probably yes. It is fair to say you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Unless employees dress in the extreme (with the unlikely choice of shorts, tee-shirts or tuxedos) a client’s perception of the corporate culture will ultimately be more nuanced. Upon entering your offices, the visual of a sea of dark blue suits will leave a decidedly different impression than the brighter and more colorful dress shirts & khakis style. It’s really all about the image you want to project and the expectations of the client.

In my first year working for Microsoft, I transitioned from those 3-piece suits to logo shirts. Honestly I loved the change at work; until one day I was asked at the last minute to participate in a business meeting at a very large Wall Street firm. My instinct told me I was severely under-dressed, though I had no opportunity to go home and change. Besides, my fellow “Softies” were all casually dressed as well.

The meeting was held in a large mahogany-walled board room, with all those old familiar hanging portraits of past officers, leather chairs, chandeliers, you get the picture. I knew right there we were in trouble.

In walked the client team, dressed in dark blue and black business suites. And these were the IT folks! I really knew we were in big trouble.

The client’s business choices were to adopt newer Microsoft server technology or stick with IBM mainframes for a particular project. This was the last Q&A session to help them make a final decision — new and leading edge vs. the old and aging. The meeting went well. The client was engaging. We were very well prepared. My job was to put the salesy Microsoft ROI spin on the differences. My tech team was fantastic explaining the technical advantages. Lots of pleasant small talk and agreeable nods. I guess my worries were unfounded.

We lost. Why? They just weren’t convinced Microsoft technology was mature enough for their mission-critical project. Or maybe, just maybe, we didn’t look the part that they felt comfortable with. It’s a far different world today with great Microsoft technology, but in the days of Windows NT Server, logo shirts in a 90-year-old Wall Street dynasty simply didn’t click. We were selling low cost commodity software vs. IBM selling an image they could relate to and build trust in. We looked the part; the wrong part.

From that day forward, whenever possible I have endeavored to dress one notch above my client’s defacto dress code. The moral here is to focus on the image you want to project to clients, and not the whims of each employee. That may very well mean jeans and T-shirts, but client perception should always come first.

Maybe casual Friday was the best idea after all.