There’s a link between your company’s dress code and the performance of your team. It’s not what you think. It’s not that there are standards of dress that lead to greater performance. It’s much better than that.

The Dress Code Situation

For years, General Motors had a dress code in their employee handbook that was 10 pages long. Whoa.

“What’ll I wear today?” Glancing through the closet. “Wait a second, wait a second.” Sitting in the reading chair and picking up a ten pound employee handbook. “Gotta do a little source research before I dress myself today.”

What’s the unrealistic part of the short story above? It’s the part where someone reads a 10 page dress code. Almost no-one reads a 10 page dress code. Chances are, yours isn’t as long as that. Chances are, yours is between 1 and 2 pages long.

Chances are, even at 1-2 pages, you haven’t read it. If you have read it, you don’t remember what it said. And it’s not just the dress code that you haven’t read. You’ve only glanced through the entirety of the employee handbook.

There are employee handbooks in every workplace in the country simply gathering dust.

The Problem

The important problem here is not that your dress code has gone unread. It’s not the wasted paper or shelf-space. The important problem here is that even when you don’t read a 10 page dress code, it does profoundly convey a message deep into your brain. Two messages, actually.

  1. We don’t trust your judgment. You don’t know how to behave at work. You can’t even be trusted to pick out your clothes for work. So we’re going to spell out our expectations for you in exacting detail.
  2. We’re covering our butts in case we need to discipline, fire, or otherwise protect ourselves from you. The time may come when we’ll need to make a decision in response to your bad behavior. When that time comes, we’ll need to be able to quote chapter and verse so we can prove that you’ve been out of compliance.

The Solution

Mary Barra became the CEO of GM in 2014 and made an adjustment to the dress code that she called, “the smallest biggest change,” she’s made. She shortened the dress code to two words:

Dress appropriately.

When I suggest changes like this one — shortening the employee handbook, setting descriptive policies instead of prescriptive ones — my clients sometimes object.

  • People will interpret this policy wrong.
  • I will have to talk to people about these policies — talk to them about what they’re wearing, etc. I’ll be wasting my time.
  • Each manager may interpret these policies differently.
  • Managers may interpret these policies differently in different circumstances and with different people.

That’s right. each of these objections is true.

The ROI

Each of these objections is primarily a benefit.

  • When people interpret the policy wrong, that’s an opportunity to talk with them about the present circumstances and explain the impact of their interpretation and decisions. Meanwhile, you’re strengthening the relationship if you speak to them with respect, and you’re building their capacity to have strong judgment, influenced by yours.
  • Talking with people about the policies and impacts of different interpretations has the above benefits. That leads to greater engagement, better future decisions, and the incidental development of a leadership bench.
  • Different managers making different interpretations isn’t a problem. It’s flexibility. Small companies with strong cultures often falter as they become big companies. Part of this is centralized leadership that’s far from the front lines. Descriptive policies permit “local leadership” and “local culture.” While the culture is largely consistent because the policies and values are the same, it’s also flexible, permitting greater fit for the smaller climates within a larger company. And managers have a sense of ownership and pride that comes with decision making.
  • While there is some space for discriminatory interpretations and applications of subjective policies, that in turn is an opportunity to reveal the unconscious prejudice for an opportunity to address it. All of this increases feedback and growth. It doesn’t come without some risk. And profit always comes as a benefit of smart, calculated risk taking.

In an environment shaped by principle instead of rules, people are engaged and their performance improves.

So, if I were to make this recommendation in two words…

Principles first!