How to Change a Dress Code Policy—in 24 Hours

Often, decision-making in corporations crawls along at a snail’s pace. Or so it seems. But occasionally, when the right idea surfaces at the right time, things can move quickly.

Group of Happy People in Jeans - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Andresr, Image #5563401

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Andresr

On Thursday, October 16, at 4:30 p.m. Gabe Wicks, the VP in charge of our Design and Multimedia Group, sent me an email. He challenged our dress code policy, saying

Given the harsh economic climate, why don’t we help out our employees’ personal expenses while also giving them a positive perk that won’t cost the company a dime? Allowing employees to wear jeans at their discretion would do both. It would certainly reduce dry cleaning costs for most staffers, and it would be a tangible policy change that would lift spirits and give people one more reason to be thankful they have a job, particularly with a company that sincerely cares about them, their finances and their comfort at work.

I replied seven minutes later to Gabe and Jim Thomason, our VP of Human Resources. I told them both that I loved the idea. Jim replied a few minutes later and suggested that we poll the executive leadership team. We gave them a “negative option,” telling them that we were going to announce the change on Friday afternoon unless they objected. I wanted for our employees to go into the weekend with some positive news.

By noon on Friday, we had heard from everyone on the executive team. Jim sent out a “Dress Code Change” announcement at 1:30 p..m., less than 24 hours from the time Gabe first presented the idea.

An hour later Jim reported back that his email was “lit up with thank-you notes.” More than one employee said to him, “This is the best news I have heard in weeks?” Wow.

Last week, in honor of our new dress code, I wore jeans every single day. I loved how much more productive I felt. I don’t know if it was the jeans per se or just the change of pace. Regardless, I like it.

Question: Why do you think most people responded so positively to such a seemingly small change in our dress code? What other small changes could we make that would have a big impact?
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  • Janie

    The comapnay I used to work for went back and forth a few times, changing the dress code. The switch to jeans from business casual was a huge morale booster for me. Wearing my jeans and a sweater in the winter simply made it easier to get out the door in the morning, and stay comfortable all day.

  • Janie

    The comapnay I used to work for went back and forth a few times, changing the dress code. The switch to jeans from business casual was a huge morale booster for me. Wearing my jeans and a sweater in the winter simply made it easier to get out the door in the morning, and stay comfortable all day.

  • Jake

    I have heard of companies that went casual then went back to “professional” because they said production increased when people dressed up and took what they were doing more seriously. I also know that I get more done at home when I get completely dressed and wear serious shoes. Is it an accident that the colder places on earth where people tend to wear more clothing are also the most productive places on earth? Casual sometimes goes down hill into immodest. And immodest gets to be distracting. How do you keep that from happening?

    Incidently, I am not against casual at church because I think the devil did a good day’s work when clothing entered the field of human necessity. It certainly is a barrier to people attending church. I think the perfect church has people attending who are dressed up, and with about the same number of people in jeans or casual. That way, when a first time visitor comes, he will feel appropriate no matter how he is dressed. Some who dress up every day don’t feel right when they are in public but not dressed up. On the other hand, no one would feel like they had to dress in order to go.

  • Jake

    I have heard of companies that went casual then went back to "professional" because they said production increased when people dressed up and took what they were doing more seriously. I also know that I get more done at home when I get completely dressed and wear serious shoes. Is it an accident that the colder places on earth where people tend to wear more clothing are also the most productive places on earth? Casual sometimes goes down hill into immodest. And immodest gets to be distracting. How do you keep that from happening?

    Incidently, I am not against casual at church because I think the devil did a good day's work when clothing entered the field of human necessity. It certainly is a barrier to people attending church. I think the perfect church has people attending who are dressed up, and with about the same number of people in jeans or casual. That way, when a first time visitor comes, he will feel appropriate no matter how he is dressed. Some who dress up every day don't feel right when they are in public but not dressed up. On the other hand, no one would feel like they had to dress in order to go.

  • Jake

    I have heard of companies that went casual then went back to “professional” because they said production increased when people dressed up and took what they were doing more seriously. I also know that I get more done at home when I get completely dressed and wear serious shoes. Is it an accident that the colder places on earth where people tend to wear more clothing are also the most productive places on earth? Casual sometimes goes down hill into immodest. And immodest gets to be distracting. How do you keep that from happening?

    Incidently, I am not against casual at church because I think the devil did a good day’s work when clothing entered the field of human necessity. It certainly is a barrier to people attending church. I think the perfect church has people attending who are dressed up, and with about the same number of people in jeans or casual. That way, when a first time visitor comes, he will feel appropriate no matter how he is dressed. Some who dress up every day don’t feel right when they are in public but not dressed up. On the other hand, no one would feel like they had to dress in order to go.

  • http://www.greenleafpress.com/ Rob Shearer

    Great post – and the morale effect is real. But it may not be what was changed, so much as the fact that you thought about the employees and did something – almost anything.

    See, for example, the celebrated "Hawthorne Effect." When the lighting was increased at the Hawthorne Co., productivity went up. Weeks later, when the lighting was decreased, productivity also went up. Each time a change was made, productivity went up – temporarily. Turns out, employees are motivated when somebody pays attention to them. Doesn't matter what you do… just paying attention to them makes them more productive.

  • http://www.greenleafpress.com/ Rob Shearer

    Great post – and the morale effect is real. But it may not be what was changed, so much as the fact that you thought about the employees and did something – almost anything.

    See, for example, the celebrated “Hawthorne Effect.” When the lighting was increased at the Hawthorne Co., productivity went up. Weeks later, when the lighting was decreased, productivity also went up. Each time a change was made, productivity went up – temporarily. Turns out, employees are motivated when somebody pays attention to them. Doesn’t matter what you do… just paying attention to them makes them more productive.

  • http://www.greenleafpress.com Rob Shearer

    Great post – and the morale effect is real. But it may not be what was changed, so much as the fact that you thought about the employees and did something – almost anything.

    See, for example, the celebrated “Hawthorne Effect.” When the lighting was increased at the Hawthorne Co., productivity went up. Weeks later, when the lighting was decreased, productivity also went up. Each time a change was made, productivity went up – temporarily. Turns out, employees are motivated when somebody pays attention to them. Doesn’t matter what you do… just paying attention to them makes them more productive.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com/ Matt

    I don’t wear jeans. I haven’t since I was old enough to buy my own clothes. I prefer gaberdines, flannels, and herringbone tweeds, with turned up cuffs and two pleats.

    I wouldn’t enjoy working in a company where everyone, or almost everyone wears dungarees.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Matt

    I don’t wear jeans. I haven’t since I was old enough to buy my own clothes. I prefer gaberdines, flannels, and herringbone tweeds, with turned up cuffs and two pleats.

    I wouldn’t enjoy working in a company where everyone, or almost everyone wears dungarees.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com/ Matt

    I don't wear jeans. I haven't since I was old enough to buy my own clothes. I prefer gaberdines, flannels, and herringbone tweeds, with turned up cuffs and two pleats.

    I wouldn't enjoy working in a company where everyone, or almost everyone wears dungarees.

  • Sammy J

    Michael,
    We spend a lot of our lives at work. Traditionally, it’s been about 1/3, but nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised the average is 1/2 of our lives spent working. I think allowing jeans at work helps our time spent at work feel more integrated into our daily lives. In effect, you’re not dressing for work, you’re dressing as you normally would, so there’s less of a distinction. Does that make sense?

    Either way, it’s funny how sometimes, the smallest details can have such an impact on morale.

  • Sammy J

    Michael,
    We spend a lot of our lives at work. Traditionally, it’s been about 1/3, but nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised the average is 1/2 of our lives spent working. I think allowing jeans at work helps our time spent at work feel more integrated into our daily lives. In effect, you’re not dressing for work, you’re dressing as you normally would, so there’s less of a distinction. Does that make sense?

    Either way, it’s funny how sometimes, the smallest details can have such an impact on morale.

  • Sammy J

    Michael,
    We spend a lot of our lives at work. Traditionally, it's been about 1/3, but nowadays, I wouldn't be surprised the average is 1/2 of our lives spent working. I think allowing jeans at work helps our time spent at work feel more integrated into our daily lives. In effect, you're not dressing for work, you're dressing as you normally would, so there's less of a distinction. Does that make sense?

    Either way, it's funny how sometimes, the smallest details can have such an impact on morale.

  • Brad C

    I live in Colorado, known for being very casual. I worked in places with both a dress code and places without. It is the little things that make a difference. One company I use to work for, someone came from the East Coast and they were “appalled” how no one dresses up here. Because of that, word got out in a memo that it was time to crackdown on the dress code. One of the big things they aimed at was banning blue jeans. Word got out after the memo of what happened. Luckily, some people in management (local) pushed back. But they knuckled down for about 6 months before finally pushing back.

    On the crackdown, they cracked down so hard that casual Fridays were eliminated and as a “bonus”, if you traveled on business even on Saturday or Sunday, you were expected to abide by the company dress code. However, you were not paid for that time though.

  • Brad C

    I live in Colorado, known for being very casual. I worked in places with both a dress code and places without. It is the little things that make a difference. One company I use to work for, someone came from the East Coast and they were “appalled” how no one dresses up here. Because of that, word got out in a memo that it was time to crackdown on the dress code. One of the big things they aimed at was banning blue jeans. Word got out after the memo of what happened. Luckily, some people in management (local) pushed back. But they knuckled down for about 6 months before finally pushing back.

    On the crackdown, they cracked down so hard that casual Fridays were eliminated and as a “bonus”, if you traveled on business even on Saturday or Sunday, you were expected to abide by the company dress code. However, you were not paid for that time though.

  • Brad C

    I live in Colorado, known for being very casual. I worked in places with both a dress code and places without. It is the little things that make a difference. One company I use to work for, someone came from the East Coast and they were "appalled" how no one dresses up here. Because of that, word got out in a memo that it was time to crackdown on the dress code. One of the big things they aimed at was banning blue jeans. Word got out after the memo of what happened. Luckily, some people in management (local) pushed back. But they knuckled down for about 6 months before finally pushing back.

    On the crackdown, they cracked down so hard that casual Fridays were eliminated and as a "bonus", if you traveled on business even on Saturday or Sunday, you were expected to abide by the company dress code. However, you were not paid for that time though.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/DennisPreston DennisPreston

    Michael, I'm new to your blog but saw this and wanted to comment. This idea may have already been communicated before, but to me, bears repeating again. More than the external issue of what people wear, this was (to me) a value issue. As in, what the company values, and that is its people. Maxwell has quoted someone who says that a leader's main job is to define reality. In defining reality, which really comes down to choices, you're also defining what is not reality. The reality defined by this decision is that "our people matter to us," and not, "what you wear and how well you keep up with the Jones in the office does not." It also defines that the organization is not about the externals, but about what it does to enhance the human condition. A subtle change, but a big impact. Great decision.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/DennisPreston DennisPreston

    Michael, I'm new to your blog but saw this and wanted to comment. This idea may have already been communicated before, but to me, bears repeating again. More than the external issue of what people wear, this was (to me) a value issue. As in, what the company values, and that is its people. Maxwell has quoted someone who says that a leader's main job is to define reality. In defining reality, which really comes down to choices, you're also defining what is not reality. The reality defined by this decision is that "our people matter to us," and not, "what you wear and how well you keep up with the Jones in the office does not." It also defines that the organization is not about the externals, but about what it does to enhance the human condition. A subtle change, but a big impact. Great decision.

  • Pingback: · Changing Cultures & Business Casual

  • Barb Rosmus

    I think people responded so favorably because this showed you valued them for THEM and their abilities, not for what they wear. Good for you!!! Barb

  • Barb Rosmus

    I think people responded so favorably because this showed you valued them for THEM and their abilities, not for what they wear. Good for you!!! Barb

  • Ken

    downward changes are always easer than up-ward changes. Things run naturally downhill.

  • Anonymous

    wow im a high school student and i think uniforms are ok i guess???

  • juliana

    In school we are hear to learn not get in trouble for silly things.

  • Gru

    I work for a large government contractor and just ran into this problem myself. The ONLY answers management could give me was “That’s the policy, and that’s how it’s always been.” I dared to wear shorts (nice ones) on a day when it was 114 outside. I do 90% of my job from my desk. I’m on a production facility where the factory guys can wear jeans & t-shirts, but we’re a separate business unit and our managers have decided that we need to “dress a step above” instead of matching the site’s dress code. No reason other than “we need to look professional.” For who? I’m supposed to do my job from my desk. 

    So looking forward to a job that puts more value on employee productivity than what I wore to work that day.