As Workplace Dress Codes Go Away, Here Is the One Simple Question to Ask About the Future

Having recently gone to New York City on a weekday, I was keenly aware of how people dressed on their way to work, as I rode the subway with them. Some men were wearing suits, others wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, others t-shirts and shorts, and some women were wearing everything from dresses, to shorts, and everything in between. So this made me think, as I have many times in the past but just decided to post about it, why do we dress the way we do? And what can we do to change it?

Here’s the underlying point of the above rhetorical questions: the only thing that should matter in the workplace is the impact of our work–basically, how successful we are. That may be my opinion, but I think it is one shared by most people.

So getting back to the questions above, and keeping my above point in mind, most agree that we dress the way we do because of a dress code at work. However, a recent New York Times article called “The End of the Office Dress Code” begs to differ. Dress codes are going away. In fact, most US Government agencies don’t have official dress codes anymore. Even further, the New York City Commission on Human Rights indicated that dress codes in New York City could only be enforced if they equally applied to both men and women. Basically, if a company required men to wear ties, then women had to wear ties, too. So, it is clear that we are seeing the beginning of the dissolution of dress codes.

Other people state that they dress in the way they do because it’s considered “professional attire.” So that begs the question, “What is professional attire?” which, of course, gets the standard response of “suit and a tie” (at least for men). But when asked, well why do you wear a suit and tie, the answer inevitably is “because it’s professional attire.” And you can see how the circular argument begins to spin.

A smaller group of people I’ve polled (unscientifically, of course) indicate that they dress the way they do because they feel empowered by doing it. This, to me, is the most legitimate reason for wearing what you do. Your clothing, just as your hair, glasses, earbuds, or any other accessory, shows the world who you are and the styles you prefer. Just as some people like wearing Beats by Dre headphones because it’s a status symbol, others will wear a suit and tie to work because they want to put off that image. And in our open society of the United States, you’re free to do that.

But this last point is the critical piece: the people feel empowered when they wear the “professional” clothing. This begs the next question: What if I feel empowered by wearing something else? What if I feel empowered by wearing a Slayer t-shirt and shorts? What if I’m at my best when I’m wearing that, instead of a suit and tie when it’s 100+ degrees out in the summer? Well, that’s just not acceptable in the workplace. Yet, at least.

But why is it not? I should be able to do what is necessary for me to be able to achieve my absolute best in the workplace, and if I determine, based on my own self-awareness, that I am better at work and achieve more when I wear a Slayer t-shirt, then shouldn’t I be able to do that?

The answer I usually receive to that question, aside from the typical “it’s not professional attire” answer, is that it is distracting in the workplace. Just as blue hair, facial piercings, or exposed tattoos, “unprofessional” clothing can cause a distraction in the workplace for other employees. Therefore, I’m putting other people in situations where they are not able to be their best at work, and that is detrimental to the mission.

However, that speaks to a deeper issue: the apparent psychological immaturity and/or closed-mindedness of those people who would determine my Slayer t-shirt to be improper. Why is the exposed tattoo or a facial piercing a problem, when the actual problem is that the co-worker isn’t mature enough to look at someone for the job he/she does and doesn’t judge the person for the clothing he/she wears? That is the real issue at play. It’s not so much the blue hair or my Slayer t-shirt, it’s the mindset of those who judge because they’re not mentally mature enough (or just so stuck in the past) that they can’t look past the initial facade. They judge the book by its cover.

I’ve spent time in the private sector as a financial adviser, as well as a diplomat working in Iraq, so I understand dressing for the job and or “dressing to impress.” But if I’m sitting at a computer most of the day, interacting only with my team and/or a few others, what’s the difference in what I wear?

Next time you’re at work and are questioning someone’s appearance, whether it be hair color, clothing, or anything on the surface, ask yourself this question: What is the impact of this person to my group’s mission? Dig deeper and your answer might surprise you. Once you realize the positive impact the person has, maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a little bit more comfortable with the Slayer t-shirt.

What do you usually wear to work? What do you think of the above post? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



One thought on “As Workplace Dress Codes Go Away, Here Is the One Simple Question to Ask About the Future

  1. I love the blog. And I also love putting pink highlights in my hair because I want to, it’s fun, and I don’t give a shit what other people think. Feeling empowered comes from within. But, I don’t underestimate the power of dress to express oneself. To me, clothing is art, a form of self-expression that communicates who I am to the world. I also think, if people could be naked, they might actually take better care of their bodies instead of abusing them and hiding behind under schlumpy clothes. But of course garments are meant to protect and insulate us from exposure and so we wear them. And since we do, we might as well rock whatever our hearts desire.


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