We are in an historic labor shortage. Not only are people failing to apply for vacancies, they are turning jobs down, and leaving existing ones in droves. At the same time, hiring managers are working hard to improve diversity.
From perks aplenty to novel recruiting tactics, businesses of all kids are taking a multitude of approaches to fill immediate labor needs and long-term hiring goals. Here’s one that could help on both fronts: Drop the dress code.
Recently, a friend told me about asking her child to change their outfit for a college interview. She saw it as a classic dress-to-impress situation. In another conversation, that same friend described to me how pandemic-era casual attire was here to stay in her practice. During a staff meeting, her team universally agreed that dressing up for work was not essential. In fact, comfy clothes made work more pleasant and lowered the cost of working there.
These two distinct situations are intertwined in a revealing way: We still associate certain looks, attire, hair color and styles… with being “impressive,” “professional,” or fitting into a specific role. Finance? Pricey suit. Tech? Hoodie and stylish kicks. Female newscaster? Sheath dress and tidy bob. Teacher? No visible tattoos.
When I started out in publishing, earning a wage that required me to work part time as a bartender to afford to share a single room in New York, it was expected that I wear “professional attire” to work. For trust fund babies in similar entry level roles, this wasn’t a problem. For me, however, it didn’t just make the job (even more) financially challenging, it in no way reflected my personality. These conventions endure. And the lack of diversity in publishing and media causes coverage gaps along with issues in relating to, and serving the needs of, millions of Americans.
Class is one of the less-discussed aspect of inclusion and equity. Americans are particularly offput by the very notion of class distinctions. However, the reality is that there are still companies — even entire industries — that hire from a very small pool of candidates. For example, as many as 80% of investment bank recruits are drawn from a small list of target schools. “Target schools” is code for elite universities dominated by the very wealthy. Thus, the cycle quietly perpetuates itself.
Certainly, it makes sense for any company struggling with a labor shortage to expand its list of recruitment-worthy universities. In fact, there are those who think it wise to forgo the expectation of college degrees altogether. But it also time we rethink the dress code as we address staffing goals.
NASA is an organization that’s worked hard to broaden its talent pool for decades. Its DEI efforts are wide ranging and impressive. However, a little-known example is that back in 2008, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory issued a memo that said “We are eliminating the dress code. As long as it’s not going to offend somebody, feel free to be who you are.” Hair color, style, texture; tattoos; hoodies, khakis, pocket protectors, stilettos, and converse alike, the message was, “we want you to bring your personality to work.”
An organization synonymous with genius and innovation said it out loud: Everyone is welcome here. It may not be rocket science, but this was — and is — groundbreaking. Imagine if we normalized “be who you are” workplaces? What if students represented their truest selves in college interviews?
We’re seeing the pandemic’s workplace and work-life balance effects leave lasting imprints on our culture. Some believe that casual workplace attire will be one of these. But casual is not the sole marker of inclusive fashion. I encounter those who have never given any thought to whether the texture, color, or style of a person’s hair is indicative of their ability to perform a given profession. But when’s the last time you saw a newscaster sporting anything but the sleekest coiffure. Imagine the swaths of class and culture excluded from this club by virtue of hair alone.
Now look at the floor of the NYSE. Your kids’ athletic team. Your about us page.
Is the tacit message “conform or seek employment elsewhere”? That’s not very inviting. It also doesn’t seem like a place that will reap the benefits of diverse talent and perspectives. If ever there was a moment in time to drop the dress code, this is it. Open your doors, and your minds, to the fact that talent doesn’t have an appropriate hairstyle or outfit.
An angel investor recently told me that working in business was all about fitting inside a box. Entrepreneurship, he found, was all about thinking and being outside that box to inspire innovation. True talent can, and should, blow up the box of our conventions. It’s time, at last, to drop the dress code and hire for outcomes, not outfits.