Do ‘Clothes Make The Man?’

By on June 1, 2005 in Human Resources with 0 Comments

“Clothes make the man. Naked people make little or no influence on society.” That, at least, was the view of Mark Twain, perhaps reflecting his 19th century values.

Should there be a dress code for employees of federal agencies? Some readers may feel that how one dresses has an impact on the ability to move higher on the organization chart. But should the way employees dress be regulated or remain largely a matter of personal preference?

Some agency officials think there should be a dress code. In one case last year, the Federal Service Impasses Panel ordered the adoption of a dress code which agency officials thought was necessary because of the poor public image created by poorly dressed employees who were working with or at least being seen by the public.

Perhaps it is a matter of geography. Agencies do not publicize whether they have a dress code or not. Based on personal experience and observation, the dress of employees in different agencies and in different geographic areas is considerably different.

In many cases, the differences are a matter of style or culture. In some agencies in the Washington, DC area, employees dress very casually. I have seen employees in agencies wearing “flip flops” or dressed in tank tops and shorts and standing around in groups outside of large federal buildings apparently taking off of work to smoke. In other agencies, just one or two blocks away, employees were more often dressed in suits or stylish clothing.

In other agencies, some employees were wearing colorful, non-traditional clothing that one might perceive as reflecting that employee’s ethnic or racial ancestry. No doubt, any dress code that infringed into this area of human behavior would be frowned upon by some and would likely end up before a third party tribunal.

And, in one Defense agency I visited in Florida, a very polite, articulate receptionist controlled access to the human resources office in a firm, professional way. The employees I was there to see were invariably referred to as “Mr. Jones” or “Mrs. Doe” while the receptionist peered at me through glasses with dark plastic frames and a matching comb in a beehive hairdo that would have been totally in sync with the 1950’s atmosphere of the Happy Days TV sitcom with “The Fonz” and Ronnie Howard playing the lead roles. The employees with whom I met all wore suits (male) or wore dresses (female).

While visiting with federal employees in agencies in the western United States, I often ran into a less formal atmosphere. Employees were prone to wear sport shirts (no ties) and slacks or similar more casual attire for women. I rarely, if ever, met or saw employees with very informal clothing such as tank tops or shorts.

There is a different atmosphere that a visitor feels instantly in different agencies–or even within some agencies. I confess to having occasionally felt ill at ease walking around the L’Enfant Plaza area of Washington, DC while large groups of very casually dressed people, apparently federal employees from the buildings in the area, stood around smoking and talking loudly while I walked around and through the groups in a suit and carrying a briefcase. When meeting with employees from those same agencies, the people with whom I met were dressed in suits or stylish clothing with no evidence of tank tops or sandals among those occupying the private offices.

On the other hand, while visiting several other agencies in downtown Washington, all employees were generally dressed in suits or shirts with ties for men and dresses or stylish clothing for women.

The public image was certainly different in each case. It was not clear in any case if the difference was the result of dress codes, personal preferences of employees or some other reason.

Does public image make a difference to an agency? Does it impact the productivity of employees? Should an agency work to create a favorable image by requiring employees to dress in a particular way?

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.


About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources.