By Sara Harrup
Over the years I have been involved with many organisations in a range of sectors. The people in those organisations have presented themselves in many different ways, from wearing suits, with conservative personal presentation, to shorts and jeans with blue hair and as many piercings as one can possibly fit into one’s body. Overall I can say that it is my experience that how one dresses is not an indication of one’s talent or intellect. However, it is also my experience that how one dresses, and how an organisation’s people present themselves collectively, does seem to have a strange effect on a range of other work related issues such as productivity and professionalism.
Tracking back to the mid-nineties I recall one organisation I was involved with where it was customary to wear formal business attire when working. Everybody, from the general managers to the clerical staff in the mail room wore a shirt and tie or suit for men and tailored dresses, pants, skirts or suits for women, with stockings and heels. There was no formal code of dress. This is just how people chose to dress. People took their work very seriously and felt their contribution, no matter what role they had, was integral and important. They were a high performing business. When dress down days on Fridays were introduced it was interesting what happened. People were excited about wearing jeans and t shirts. The mood was light and rogue like behaviour was common. Not a great deal of work happened on Fridays. It was fun but not terribly productive.
At the other end of spectrum I was involved with a smaller organisation whose dress policy was smart casual. People stretched the rules and wore jeans, t-shirts, thongs and Crocs (gasp!) every day. On one occasion there were some important visitors to the office and the teams were asked to dress in formal business attire for a few days. The change in the atmosphere was palpable. People behaved differently, more professionally. People commented on how different but great it felt to dress up and to see their colleagues dress up. Those few days were very productive.
A friend of mine recently moved from a job where he wore jeans and a collared shirt to work to one where all his colleagues were wearing suits. It was one of the first things he commented on when I asked him how his new job was going. “They are all suited up! These people are seriously hard workers and they know what they are on about!” he said. In his past role, no one worked particularly hard, the bureaucracy was so suffocating that people could not speak freely to each other and his morale was low. He started wearing jeans to work because he didn’t care. He is now in an environment which is a new setup working with people who are the experts in their field. They work hard, they live their values and there are no barriers between positions – the person in the most junior role can freely talk to the person in the most senior role and offer their thoughts and perspective.
So perhaps it’s not the clothes but the culture. The things people wear to work are the outward representation of the culture of the organisation in which they work and their own level of happiness in that organisation. I know that people’s finances also play a role in what they wear but on the whole I think you can tell if someone is making an effort regardless of how much they spent on their attire. I know that making generalisations can be tricky. People who are suffering with their own issues around depression or chronic illness may not present themselves as well as someone who is fit as a fiddle. I put it to you though……take the dress up challenge. Dress up for two weeks at work and see what effect it has on you and the people around you.
About Sara: Sara Harrup is a Cause & Effective Associate. She is a former not for profit CEO and has first-hand knowledge of the challenges and issues faced by organisations in the sector and the people who work in them. Sara brings this experience and insight to our Leadership Search team.