How to Set a Millennial-Friendly Dress Code for the Workplace
Don’t think that because Millennials prefer informal dress, the best course of action is to throw out all your company standards and give them free reign to show up in their ripped denim and graphic tees. Instead, consider how you can move the needle and adapt what you already do in a way that doesn’t sacrifice your company’s culture.
Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo of your dress policy in as objective and unbiased a way as possible. Gather a team of leaders to assess the options. But watch for the following two characters who will inevitably show up. If you can identify them beforehand, it’s probably even best to try and avoid sending invites for this conversation, because they’re not going to be valuable additions to the group:
- The hater: He’s not even listening to the conversation. He’s annoyed that you’re even considering “kowtowing” to these Millennial upstarts, and his goal at the meeting is to remain rigid and unbending, no matter how sound the logic may be. He’s obviously not going to be super helpful.
- The groupie: She loves Millennials and thinks they’re the best thing to happen to your organization since email. Just like the naysayer, she’ll be blindly willing to change whatever it takes to accommodate the next generation hires. Her perspective, far from unbiased, will only serve to further annoy those who may be more skeptical.
With your team of open-minded leaders assembled, ask yourselves these questions: Is a dress code absolutely necessary to get the job done? When was the last time it changed? Have you invited your employees’ opinions about it? How much time and money would it take to change the dress code? Are there certain times when formality might be more appropriate than others?
Even if you have zero pull in your organization as far as being able to change policy around dress, don’t fret. There are some things you can do to manage your own assumptions around dress code and also bend the rules to make the workplace slightly more accommodating for your Millennial direct-reports:
- Don’t make assumptions in interviews. Just because some Millennials may seem underdressed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not serious about the job. Don’t let the few wrinkles in the pants, missing jacket, and tattoo sleeve distract you from the potentially brilliant mind that lies beneath. Listen, bias-free, to what she’s saying. It’s a far better indicator of future performance than what she’s wearing. Of course, if you work at a firm with a very rigid dress code and casual wear is not welcome, consider telling candidates this before the interview so they can show up dressed appropriately.
- Set expectations early. The worst mistake you can make is getting frustrated by an unprofessionally dressed Millennial when you didn’t articulate your preference in the first place. Believe it or not, growing up idolizing start-up culture does not an easy task of “acting professionally” make. Communicate expectations around dress clearly upfront. Because you know what they say about making assumptions.
- Allow for flexibility where possible. If you express how you expect your staff to dress, good for you for your clarity! If you can, try to embrace a “dress for your day” culture where your employees dress for the day that lies ahead. Are there meetings with the higher-ups on the calendar? Is it an all-email kind of day? Ask Millennials to dress up or down depending on the situation; that way they can add some dress-down days where it makes sense, without sacrificing all decorum.
- Separate client code from office code. If you happen to manage Millennials in a client-centric organization, then opt for a “dress for your client” code. Articulate the differences between what’s okay with the client versus what’s okay in the office. You should consider that more and more of your clients are Millennials themselves and may even appreciate a dressed-down version of the client meeting.
Most companies that get voted as “top places to work” buck corporate trends. Typically, the ones on these lists have accomplished the difficult task of dismissing outdated professional norms without ruffling the feathers of older employees. They also understand that “looking the part” is critical to the organization’s brand and legacy. Before you put up the wall that resists change, step into a land of pure imagination and think of ways you can bring the look your company requires into the modern era. For example, if you ask employees to wear ties, might a skinny tie suffice? Or one with a fun print? If nice shoes are on the “must-wear” list, maybe retro sneakers can fit the bill … at least sometimes… .
Avoid gender-specific guidelines because they’re simply no longer relevant and will serve as a giant red flag to candidates. The next generation expects and demands equality in all matters of diversity, and enforcing gender-specific dress codes will deter them from your company. Opt for gender-neutral guidelines. You should also be cognizant of and sensitive to other matters of diversity like culture and religion (not to mention, it’s the law!).