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Influencing Unprofessional Dress

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.



QDear Crucial Skills,

I started my job a couple years ago and immediately observed a decided lack of commitment to dressing professionally. I didn’t want to make this an issue at the beginning of my tenure, as there were bigger fish to fry, but now I feel it’s time to address it.

We have seven offices, so multiple players are involved instead of one or two employees. I’ll have to convince the seven office managers of the importance of professional dress first then work with them to encourage their employees to dress professionally. How can I start a crucial conversation and motivate employees at various levels to dress professionally?

Dress for Success

A Dear Dress for Success,

Well, you came to either the right or the wrong guy for this question. I abhor suits. I often wear them for speeches but as soon as I get to the airport, I find a lockable door and eject it as fast as I can. So I’m going to both respond to your question and question your question.

I assume you are not the owner or CEO of the company and that your challenge is peer persuasion—not gaining compliance with your own policy. It sounds as though you have some decision-making authority over your own office but that peers manage the others. With that assumption, here are some thoughts.

You might be wrong. Before trying to motivate employees to dress professionally, I’d suggest you consult your colleagues and come to Mutual Purpose. Share your view of the relationship between dress and performance then invite them to share theirs. Is this an industry norm? Are people dressing casually or inappropriately? What is the right level of dress for the image you want to project? What makes customers comfortable and reinforces your credibility? What is just personal preference and might be irrelevant? Be sure to make it safe for your colleagues to express any view and encourage them to weigh in with feedback they might have received or data they can cite to help you make a fact-based decision on the policy.

Agree on a test. If you mutually conclude that dress might improve employee performance or customer perception, try a pilot. Perhaps you can do it in your office since you’re most interested in the concept. Or perhaps it would be best to do it elsewhere as the results will be more trusted if others do the test. Agree on how you’ll evaluate the pilot. For example, you may agree to start with your office and move to a new code for three months then survey customers to test the reaction. Be sure to agree on the design of the survey in advance so you aren’t accused of manipulating the data to support your thesis.

Engage employees. Assuming your peers agree there is potential merit, you next need to take up the issue with your team. This might be tough. Casual is always easier. Plus, a different dress code could be expensive to those whose wardrobes don’t include more formal attire. Be sensitive to this issue and find a way to adapt to people’s economic constraints. In our Influencer book, we describe three ways you can help people change their minds—verbal persuasion, vicarious experience, and direct experience. In this case, I’d suggest the latter. Get a handful of opinion leaders from your team and take them on a field trip to a place with different dress standards. Design the field trip in a way that lets them observe the effects of professional dress, interview some of those who are practicing it, etc. Then bring them back to debrief with your larger team.

Be flexible. I’ll end where I started. I’m a jeans and sneakers kind of guy, but I also understand that clothes are part of the message so I dress up when needed. I’d suggest that even if better dress is the right answer, you could create a nuanced policy that required it when it was useful. For example, some companies have a policy of dressing up for outward facing meetings. In other words, when clients will be in the office or you’re going to theirs, dress up. When not visiting with a client or customer, dress casual.

I wish you the best as you work your way through this. Drop me a line when you decide what to do and see how it works. I’d love to hear the postscript!


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9 thoughts on “Influencing Unprofessional Dress”

  1. Keely

    At some point in high school, I was told (I don’t remember by whom) that it was important to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”. I’ve tried to model that over the years and in my most recent company have gone from an entry-level position to a manager in 7 years (3 promotions). While I admit, I also have the skills for this position and have used crucial conversations to let my superiors know that I was interested in advancement, my (previous) peers have been “held back”. I admit I could be wrong, but I believe part of it has to do with a lack of professional dress, which is perceived by the “powers that be” to be a lack of professionalism, talent and commitment. I have even overheard comments like, “She would make a good x because she has the right appearance” (in that she would present herself well to outside clients because she dresses professionally). It may not be important in all areas, but it is definitely more important in some fields than others.

  2. Missy

    I work for a state agency which is also union. Many of my professional colleagues will dress appropriately if they are interfacing with the public. My personal preference is to dress for success each day. It makes me feel the boundary between work and play/my other life. I do dress jeans on casual Fridays unless I have an appointment.
    My personal observations, as a customer, is often I have a hard time figuring out who is an employee vs. customer in the outside world. When I am looking for help in a store, I often have to look for a lanyard or name tag. This is time-consuming, as you always don’t get to see the front of an individual unless they are behind a counter.
    On the flip side, let me talk about uniforms in my career of nursing. I hear it expressed by friends and family you cannot tell who the nurse is anymore no matter what the situation. Everyone gets to wear scrubs. I love scrubs, too but share their frustration when I have tried to find the appropriate help for others while visiting hospitals and extended-care facilities. I hate the notion of looking at someone’s chest to try and see a name tag. I know I would not appreciate that.
    I liked that you brought up the cost. Actually, I have found great buys at seasonal times and at various on-line and yes, gently used! No one knows except me.

  3. Ray Ellison

    I’m an old school guy that actually preferred the days of suits and ties. That said I’m a big believer that the key to success with dress is to think of it as “packaging”. It’s the package you are put in, that helps make a positive first impression. If your job is one where that is important then you better pay attention to it and in today’s world formal doesn’t always work. I have some wonderful “stories” I could share to give someone a vicarious experience about this if needed.

  4. Paige

    My workplace recently instituted once-a-month jeans-wearing days. We are still required to wear logo-d shirts, and no sports shoes are allowed.
    Seeing everyone dressed more casually (and wearing jeans myself) makes me feel like we all were asked to work on a Saturday. It makes me feel less professional and makes me view others as less professional. Even so, it is a no-cost reward for employees who like to wear jeans in an economy that stifles pay raises and other financial bonuses. Maybe as I get used to it, my negative feelings will fade.

  5. George Bond

    After retiring from the Coast Guard I went into teaching high school. I always wore a tie and I felt I not only needed to dress better than the kids but I needed to set an example. I noticed more men wearing a tie more often as I wore mine. My last year we went to Bow-Tie Wednesday to counter the jeans some wore that day. I think the kids noticed our ties more than what the other wore as jeans were the standard dress for the students. I also complemented both male and female when they dressed nicely. Sitting at home now on the computer doing Coast Guard Auxiliary work and I am wearing – jeans. Dress for the occasion but remember you may be an example to others.

  6. Mark Waltensperger

    Even though your advice on how to have a crucial conversation had merit, there was an unmistakable tone in your response that the questioner was out of touch for wanting a high standard for professional dress and was unreasonably expecting too much. What mattered most was what the customer thought, e.g., was the employee’s performance better in a tie or a polo shirt? Sure, satisfying the customer is very important, but they shouldn’t set our standards. The industry sets the standards. If standards are high (including dress), success usually follows. If they’re low, or undefined, then it shows and it won’t take the market long to figure it out and ask what else is being given a pass at that company. If we, as a society, keep going down the path of continously lowering the bar and finding the lowest expectations acceptable, we’re in for a lot of disappointment.

  7. Julinda

    Like the article and agree with it!

  8. Joseph Grenny

    I like Mark W.’s point as well as that of others above. I agree that the way you dress affects not only others’ perception but can influence your own behavior as well. I am in a suit as I write this because I had a meeting with a dignitary earlier. I carry myself differently in the suit than in my sweats.

    But I still like my sweats better and blog just fine in them! (smile)

  9. Janice Johnson

    As an image consultant (and ex IBM employee where navy blue suits ruled, I have to agree with Mark’s comment; the higher you set the dress code standard, the better the performance.

    Just don’t take my word for it, it’s been been proven as I wrote in my blog this past March.

    “According to a new study from Kellogg School of Management University, IL, USA, there is evidence to support the relationship between clothes and behaviour. The report concluded that when people dress up for a role, they actually become better at it.”

    Oh, and by the way, it doesn’t cost any more to dress professionally than it does to dress casually; in fact, it can cost less if you factor in the wear you will get from good quality clothes. And bargain shopping doesn’t hurt, either. Good for you, Missy!

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