Is the workplace dress code the new dinosaur?

Jan 25, 2023 | Blog, HR

I’ve been pondering if the workplace dress code is the new dinosaur in HR extinction terms.

In conversation with a client the other day, I asked if they wanted a dress code in their staff handbook. “No” the answer came back. “We’re not bothered about things like that” and they laughed.

Across the UK, some dry-cleaning businesses are shutting up shop because no one is having suits and formal wear dry-cleaned any more. And there are only so many times that people will get their curtains or quilts dry cleaned, right?

Nowadays, the idea of having a set dress code feels outdated and unnecessary. In fact, it’s downright laughable at times.

What was once a stalwart of any staff handbook is now something we label as optional and take the opportunity to discuss with the client. Do they feel the need to specify what people should or shouldn’t wear? So often the answer is no.

I’ve written policies that detail what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of dress code. We’ve included lists of what not to wear and that includes things like casual tops, t-shirts with slogans, jeans, shorts and strappy tops. I’ve even typed the words “during the summer months, lighter fabrics such as linen may be worn”. And I’ve had lots of conversations in my career about people wearing leggings to work, short shorts or see-through tops! Such items were never considered acceptable and conversations needed to happen in order to get that point across.

We’re seeing old bastions of workplace dress code abandoning their strict policies. Many airlines are relaxing their rules – Virgin Atlantic in particular now allows men to wear makeup or put their hair in man buns. Women are no longer required to wear makeup or heels if they choose not to. The airline announced a gender identity policy in 2022 that lets its staff choose whichever of its uniforms they feel most comfortable in.

Just how did the dress code become extinct anyway?

I think the strict formal business wear type dress code was already waning but as with so many other things in HR land, dress codes changed effectively overnight with the introduction of lockdown in 2020. Working from home simply did not demand formal wear and casual clothing became the norm.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the video meetings where people wore something relatively smart on their top half but perhaps joggers, shorts or even pyjamas on their bottom halves! And of course, with the current cold weather, an Oodie is an essential piece of workwear IMHO!

Has the dress code gone for good?

Fast forward to 2023 and although many businesses are now encouraging or even insisting that their teams return to the office, one thing that has definitely fallen by the wayside is the workplace dress code.

I go out to see clients these days and fully expect to see them in jeans and polo shirts or other casual attire, irrespective of the type of business.

I conduct interviews and when people turn up “suited and booted” it can look a little odd, like they’re trying too hard. Although I do always aim to give people an indication of suitable dress code, it seems that we still see an interview as an event requiring a more formal look.

I remember one interview where we told the candidate she’d been successful and explained the casual office dress code. She commented that she would need to buy jeans as she didn’t own any! Nowadays though, she wears her jeans with pride.. and with trainers too!

I honestly can’t see anyone returning to a more formal dress code so I really do think it’s gone for good along with other interesting policies like “relationships at work”. Yes indeed, some employers felt it necessary to spell out their position on people having relationships with colleagues. In my view, as long as the stationery cupboard wasn’t in use for something other than stationery storage, it was all good.

For questions about dress code or any other policy you have but think you don’t need, get in touch!


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