Do Company Dress Codes Affect Performance And Retention?

In an era where qualified labor is increasingly scarce, smart companies are looking for every possible edge to attract and retain workers. And while there may not be as much money in the budget for cost drivers like higher pay and benefits, some perks that might mean the world to employees may not cost any money at all.

Take a more, shall we say, employee friendly dress code, for instance. Starbucks recently relaxed theirs in an effort to promote employee self-expression (read, employee retention). Baristas can now wear different colors and styles under their trademark green apron, and even fedora hats or baseball caps to keep hair out of the coffee. It’s a complicated system, to be sure (click the link and read the article – you’ll get a kick out of it), but it’s a step in the right direction for a line of work people aren’t exactly beating down the doors to enter.

Will that help help keep some current employees and maybe even attract a few new ones? If you don’t think so, you’ve never likely held a job where the work was menial but the required attire was unbearably uncomfortable. During college in the mid 90’s I worked at a local Cracker Barrel for a couple of years, so I know all about having to wear stiff, boring dress shirts & slacks under an apron while running a grill or balancing food on a tray. By the end of the first hour, I could feel the sweat dripping down my legs and into my dress socks. In fairness it was actually a great college job, but to this day the only negative thing I think of when recalling it is that horrible dress code!

In her story about the Starbucks dress code shift, Washington Post reporter Sarah Halzack explained how she attended a Virginia Best Buy staff meeting where the team was told they could wear comfortable shoes for Black Friday weekend.

Comfortable shoes, that’s it. Such a small, seemingly insignificant, even temporary change, but it was enough to draw cheers from the staff.

Halzack also recalls, “Back in 2015, I remember watching as Walmart executives told an arena packed with store employees that they were relaxing the dress code to include black and khaki-colored denim. The applause and shouts of approval were thunderous.”

Gone are the days when every occupation short of cowboy or hobo wore a suit and tie. Imagine what the lowliest servant wore on Downton Abbey, or even the stiff uniforms the first McDonald’s employees wore. Heck, even Otis on The Andy Griffith Show always got drunk with his tie on, if a bit disheveled. These days, people want to be comfortable. And in an era where jumping ship for greener pastures at the drop of a hat is commonplace, comfort can mean the difference between retention and constantly having to replace workers.

In the staffing industry, there is no uniform (see what i did there?) approach to internal employee dress codes. When I first started staffing in 1999 I wore a tie every day for my first two years until my manager told me in passing conversation, “You know, you don’t have to wear a tie here if you don’t want to.” The next day I ditched the tie for good except for client meetings, outside-the-office networking events, and the like.

For us, dress code has been an evolving thing. The debate has usually been along the lines of how do we want our clients and job seekers to perceive us? If we look too snooty, will job seekers, many of whom often struggle to afford nice clothing, think we think we’re better than them? But if we’re too casual, will clients who come by the office on occasion think we aren’t taking our jobs seriously?

Ultimately, we decided to tread what we see as a happy medium, with business casual Monday through Thursday (no jeans) and more relaxed casual Fridays.

This seems to be the line most companies tow.

There is always tension between those who think relaxing dress codes too much could hurt productivity versus those who see it as fostering employee morale.

So, what does the research say? The Master’s College in California did a study that pretty much resulted in no definitive conclusions at all! “There is an effect on… performance in the workplace because of casual dress… Casual dress has equally positive and negative effects, and… dress codes may or may not be necessary for professional performance.”

Alrighty then! recently polled 4,600 people about office dress codes and came to some interesting conclusions. One-quarter actually think dress codes are too lenient, and a similar percentage have actually wanted to tattle to bosses about offending co-workers but didn’t for various reasons that range from office politics to favoritism. And over half, 56 percent, make conclusions about their co-workers based on what they wear.

Despite all the differences of opinion, the study made several things crystal clear. Most people are actually satisfied with their company’s dress code, employees like it when the dress code is clear and uniformly enforced, and EVERYONE LOVES casual Fridays!


This article originally appeared in Staffing Talk.