Workplace Etiquette and the Modern Millennial: Dressing the Part

Back when I was in college, the New York Stock Exchange held its first “Casual Friday” event, meaning those trading stocks and commodities along Wall Street got to dress down for the day. No sport coats and no ties — just loafers and polo shirts.

I remember saying to a friend back then, “Why would anybody buy stocks from a guy in blue jeans?”

Fast-forward just a couple months, and the NYSE did away with the concept of “Casual Friday” altogether. The reason? Turns out nobody wanted to buy stocks from a guy in blue jeans.

In my opinion, the lesson learned is simple: image matters in the workplace. After all, if the workplace doesn’t matter to you, then what does? You likely spend more waking hours per week around your co-workers (and supervisors and bosses) than you do around your spouse, partner, or roommates (or even your pets). The workplace is where you learn your trade, where you make the money to pay your bills, and, hopefully, where you achieve to the best of your abilities. These are endeavors that demand far, far more than your droll sense of humor and a pair of Lululemon yoga pants.

With that in mind, then, pay attention to these three key benefits of “dressing the part” at work.

Competence

This first benefit is the most obvious one, but it’s also the most important. Dressing for success is paramount. And yet I can already hear the groans. You are, after all, a millennial. You are, of course, a special and delicate snowflake. You are, no doubt, a genius. A genius that should only be judged by the size of your massive intellect and the unmatchable output it churns out on behalf of your company. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way in the real world. Not everyone works at Google. In fact, most people simply assign more prestige and overall competency to people who look like they know what they’re doing. It’s just human nature. It’s what we do. There’s a reason the phrase “dress for success” exists in the first place.

Further, scientific studies actually show that people feel more competent when they “dress the part.” According to the Washington Post, a study out of Northwestern University showed when research subjects wore a white lab coat, they performed markedly better on a series of mental acuity tests than those who didn’t wear the same coat.1 Those who wore the lab coat – an article of clothing many people typically associate with care and attentiveness – only made about half as many errors as their peers.1

Motivation (or Lack Thereof)

Look, no one’s saying you can’t be yourself, but you can put on a good face for the people who sign your paycheck, right? You better. According to CBS News, studies have shown that some business executives believe “dressed-down” attire can negatively affect productivity and may also hinder career advancement.2 In other words, if your boss doesn’t think you should be wearing that crop-top to the office, you probably shouldn’t be wearing that crop-top to the office. To make a long story short, it’s simple: if you want to get that big, roomy corner office one day, then brush your teeth and put on a tie (or jacket, pencil skirt, blazer – some type of office-appropriate piece of clothing).

And if you still don’t think dressing for the workplace remains the gold standard in this 21st century economy of ours, you’d better think again. According to CBS (again), over the past decade we’ve seen a huge decrease in the number of employers allowing so-called “casual” dress days – from a high of 53% in 2002 to a low of 38% just a few years later.2

Confusion

Beyond all that, there’s also the concept of confusion to consider. More and more contemporary employers are noticing that some millennials simply have no clue as to what “business casual dress” entails. In fact, a recent survey found that employers’ top complaint regarding the dress habits of millennials is that their clothing is either “too sheer” or “too revealing.”3

So there you go — the most basic rule of office etiquette demystified. Despite your (likely) initial frustration with things like "shaving" and "combing your hair," (not to mention things like "not texting at work" and –gasp– "showing up on time") your career will thank you for dressing the part — maybe not now, but certainly in the future. It’s easy to stick out from the rest of the “millennial crowd” when you meet your boss and company’s expectations in an area such as this one. Down the road a bit, when you become the boss, you can administer your own brand of fashion formality in the workplace. Whatever you want.  Visible tattoos. Fedoras. White shoes after Labor Day. Sky's the limit.

And when that day finally arrives - when you finally have the authority to make the rules instead of adhering to them – remember this one crucial piece of information: no one will ever take you seriously if you dress too casually at the office. You'll end up looking just like those guys on Wall Street. Here at IGS, we allow associates to wear jeans – but only on Fridays, and only in tandem with an appropriate collared shirt or blouse and business-wise footwear. There's a fine line in the contemporary workplace between official business rigidity and personal freedom and style, yet it's a balance you've got to beware of (and navigate safely) if you want to attract the best and brightest talent.

Sources:

1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-leadership/post/new-study-what-you-wear-could-affect-how-well-you-work/2011/04/01/gIQAssHomR_blog.html

2. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/does-casual-dress-affect-productivity/

3. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2007-07-09-business-casual-attire_N.htm

4. http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2014/02/13/heres-your-guide-to-dating-in-workplace/

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