Dressing for Success

From "professional" to "comfortable," small businesses tackle the tricky topic of how to dress for the office.
"If I let people dress the way they want, Monday would not have the kind of spike that I want."
—Ken Barnett

When Don Waskiewicz started working at InfoLab six years ago, the dress code was simple: If it was okay for washing the car, it was okay to wear to the office. Back then, there were only four employees. Today, there are 20.

And on some days, the car-wash code still stands.

"We're a gray-matter workforce," says Waskiewicz, CIO of the decade-old database marketing firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. "We're pretty much all developers, so what we wear doesn't affect what we do."

Standard dress at the office, where men outnumber women four to one, is usually jeans and a sports shirt, or even a T-shirt if it's not too ratty. The bar is raised slightly if clients come in or if employees go out to a meeting.

Most IT managers, like Waskiewicz, follow this rule of thumb—anything casual goes, as long as it's not distracting. But figuring out what to wear and when isn't easy. Although some industries require suit and tie at all times, most make allowances for office-bound employees with special needs, such as IT support staff who spend excessive time under desks installing cabling or creative staffers who thrive on looking the part and setting themselves outside the mainstream.

Take Ken Barnett, CEO of Mars Advertising. At his Southfield, Mich.-based marketing and communications firm, all 300 employees suit up on Mondays. "If I let people dress the way they want, Monday would not have the kind of spike that I want," he explains.

Employees dress in "business formal" on every day but Fridays, when jeans are allowed. The creative team, however, is exempt from the old-school dress code. "The creative team has permission to act their role," says Barnett­. "They thrive on being set apart."

But most business managers equate dress with the amount of respect outside vendors give to a fledgling business. Take CDW as an example. Founder Michael Krasny took up the question of what constitutes proper dress when he launched the company 20 years ago. The multibillion-dollar technology services firm requires business dress, which includes dress shirt and tie, or company apparel every day.

"One of our vendors used to come in blue jeans to see us, and I would throw him out," Krasny recalls of the company's early days. "If you can't come dressed like we are a real business, I don't want you in here."

Ken Barnett
CEO, Mars Advertising
Southfield, Mich.


We used to have casual Fridays. Along with the rest of the business world, our casual Fridays morphed into casual every day. After awhile, I found that on Mondays the staff was not checking back into work the way I wanted them to.

I adopted a policy of professional dress with a tie on Mondays. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, we are "business casual." That means collared shirts and no jeans. On Fridays, we're casual with jeans allowed. This applies to everyone with the exception of our creative team. They have permission to act their role. There is a certain mindset with our creative people that they are more creative when they're separated out as a different set of citizens within the ­organization.

For about a week or two, I received some complaints, but I had more people come in and say "thanks" because they needed their people to click back into work on Mondays. By putting on a tie and professional dress, it helps to reinforce that the weekend is over. I want our people to come into work ready for the start of the business week and not to see Monday as an extension of the weekend, where they might be hung-over or tired or sore because they played baseball.

Teachers in school have problems with kids on Monday, and Army sergeants must deal with soldiers returning from leave. For me, it's really about getting 300 people to a common spot where they are all thinking about the business again. People need to be reminded that they are back at it.

The approval rating for our dress code is very high. Besides, people like to dress up. I don't even have to reinforce the dress code. People have nice clothes with no place to wear them. They get to do a little peacocking on Mondays.

If any business tried it for a month, they would love it.


"In consulting, you have to look like other people have paid you to work before."
—Charles Rapier

Charles Rapier
Senior IT Manager
Ovation Research Group
Highland Park, Ill.


The tie that I wore on my first day as an employee at Ovation Research is on a hook behind my office door. I came from consulting, where life was good. In order to make it, in addition to having the certifications and education, you needed to be able to liaise between the technology shop and the executive staff. Consultants get a lot of face time in front of the corporate officers. The bare minimum was a shirt and tie. But most days, I wore the full ensemble—cleaner-pressed slacks, shined shoes, a nice tie and a suit jacket.

I remember asking a professor in college what it took to be successful in IT consulting. He said "preparation," and told me this story. He had been charging $35 an hour for consulting work, and the phones were dead. For laughs, he informed the next potential client that he charged $100 per hour and they responded: "When can you start?" It's no breakthrough realization that many people equate attire and the value of your services. In consulting, you have to look like other people have paid you to work before.

I don't enforce a dress code with my IT staff. I want my guys to be comfortable and happy. I want professionalism to come in the form of their work ethic, attitude and education, but not necessarily in the form of attire. Prior to coming to Ovation, because I came from the old school of suits and ties, it mattered more. After being here, I've seen that a person's attire has little effect on their productivity and zero effect on their business acumen. I still wear slacks and an oxford shirt every day, but I certainly don't think I'm smarter than our Ph.D.s who wear jeans.

At Ovation, the entire company is "business casual" every day. Most of our employees have master's degrees and Ph.D.s. It seems that jeans and tennis shoes go with their line of work and the time-consuming, methodical research that they do. It was difficult not to suit up each day, but it seems that the casual look goes along with the territory of being extremely smart.


"People really like to look nice. For example, most of our staff wear jeans, but they wear high-heeled boots with the jeans."
—Kim Miller

Kim miller
CFO, Marina Administration


Our dress code is interesting. At our marina properties, we have a dress code, but in our corporate office we don't.

At the properties, we want our staff to wear identifying clothing. Whether they're launching a boat or doing maintenance, we want the customer to know who they are. So, they wear T-shirts or polo shirts with our logo. It helps the customer know whether or not that person works for us.

Our headquarters are in central Phoenix and not on the site of a marina property. I'd call our dress code "business comfortable." The staff can wear whatever they want—shorts, cropped pants, tank tops, even flip-flops in the summer. One woman, who was an intern and an accounting major, got a job at a major accounting firm. That job cost her money. One of the big hits to her wallet was having to spend money on a new wardrobe. We don't want to do that to our staff.

Besides, people really like to look nice. For example, most of our staff wear jeans, but they wear high-heeled boots with the jeans. No one likes to look sloppy. If someone wears something inappropriate, I try to speak to them as soon as I see the problem. It's better that way, as opposed to having them feel embarrassed to have it brought up after they've been dressing that way for a long time.

When I'm getting dressed each morning, I ask myself: Do I have a meeting outside the office or with a customer? Then I'll make the call whether to wear slacks or jeans. We rarely have customers in our office and we're not a public-facing organization. If I have an important meeting, I try to dress more nicely and let my team know. I give people notice, and they appreciate that. I would prefer to have the benefit of knowing that a key person is coming in so that I could present myself the way I want to. I like to do that for my team as well.


"The dress code teaches my players that they are held accountable for the way they act and speak."
—Keith Simmons

Keith Simmons
Head Football Coach
and Dean of Students
Poinciana High School
Kissimmee, Fla.

For our football players, I'm a huge proponent of formal dress. I'm one of those coaches who always wears a shirt and tie.

We have a dress code on game days and pre-game days. On Thursdays, we are semi-formal, with players wearing khakis and polo shirts. We also begin to tighten up our practices. Our mentality is serious in manner. On Friday, our game day, players wear a shirt and tie. That serves two purposes: They stand apart, and it gives them a more businesslike atmosphere and mentality. My goal is self-discipline. When they are in a shirt and tie, their behavior is upstanding. They're preparing themselves for the game all day long. It's about respecting the game, respecting the atmosphere and, more importantly, respecting themselves. There are so many people counting on them to perform a certain way that they need to mentally prepare. It's an honor to play athletics in high school. You need to cherish and appreciate that.

It teaches my players that they are held accountable for the way they act and speak. Perception is huge. If you are introverted and don't speak as much, but you groom yourself, opportunities will come your way. If a highly intelligent person's attire does not fit the culture or attitude of a certain locale or place of business, chances are that he or she won't be afforded as many opportunities. Dress is all about perception. Some perceptions are not fair. Some are wrong. But you don't want perception to cost you.

There are two types of small businesses: one is the service industry, and the other is behind the scenes, making products. On the product side, you can let employees wear anything they like as long as it's not offensive, allows them to be who they are and promotes their creativity. On the service side, a uniform dress code can alleviate concerns about someone coming into your home. A plumber who arrives in a tank top, shorts and flip-flops would generate concerns. In the service industry, it's about trust.

Jan 01 2005