Do Federal Employees Dress Like Slobs?

It may be a surprise to managers in federal agencies but most readers in a recent survey think a dress code for federal employees is a good idea.

Dress codes are a controversial topic in federal agencies. It first came to our attention when the Department of Health and Human Services took up the issue before the Federal Service Impasses Panel.

When we decided to take a poll on dress codes in federal agencies, we outlined some of the issues we thought would arise and we expected controversy. And we were not disappointed. 

We had a large response to the survey and hundreds of readers sent in comments as well as voted in the poll. But the results may surprise some readers and may contain a message that may be useful to managers in some agencies. If you are working in a federal agency, chances are you think that some of your colleagues don’t know how to dress appropriately for work. More importantly, most readers responding think that a dress code is a good idea because they don’t like seeing how people working for Uncle Sam come dressed for work.

In fact, a majority of readers support dress codes for federal employees. 64% think that a dress code is necessary or desirable for federal employees. And, according to readers, one of the strongest reasons for not having a dress code is that it would not be enforced–not that they don’t want to see people dressing up for work.

Most agencies do not have a dress code according to readers. 62% said the agency they work for does not have a dress code. It may be more telling that 13% are not sure if they have one or not.

44% of those responding to our survey think that the best reason for a dress code in agencies is that it creates a more professional atmosphere. 33% think a dress code is a good idea because it creates a better public image for the agency.

As for the best reason not to have a dress code in an agency, 31% of readers responded that “there is no good reason not to have a dress code.” Another 20% said the best reason not to have a dress code is “lack of enforcement.” 16% think the best reason not to have a dress code is that professional employees should not be told how to dress.

An engineer wtih the EPA in Dallas writes: “I sit in an 8×8 cubicle all day, why should I have to dress up? My jeans are always clean and pressed, unlike many of the slobs who wear ancient khakis cinched under their beer bellies and cheesy fish-print shirts (with 25-yr old ties). The people setting the dress code would need fashion advice before they start telling others what to wear.”

A financial systems analyst in Indianapolis had this to say: “I am a tester. If all I do is sit in front of a computer and do not have contact with customers why have a dress code? I do dress appropriately when I am TDY representing my agency or when I am seen by outside personnel. But I think I am much more productive when I am comfortable.”

A Senior Case Technician with the Office of Hearings and Appeals doesn’t like dress codes: “Although I dress in expensive matching slacks, blazers, jewelry, boots, shoes, shirts, mostly in a western or horsey motif, I defend my co-workers’ right to dress however they wish. Clothes are a form of personal expression. Another function of clothes is to alleviate the numbing effect of government work and help to keep alive one’s individuality. Only micro-managers and control freaks bother themselves with how employees dress.”

An IT Specialist with the VA has this comment: “There are only a few places that a dress code is needed. that is were you are in the public face or give customer services. in a closed shop, were visitor are rare and not from outside your agency, what is the need. you are given notice when they want you to dress-up. What else is needed and why???”

But, as readers can see from the overall statistics of our survey, most federal employees responding think that a dress code is necessary or at least desirable. Some readers feel strongly that their colleagues do not have enough common sense to dress more appropriately at work and some are offended by it.

Here are a few examples:

A Claims Examiner with the SSA in Richmond, CA says: “A dress code increases morale, public image and self respect. Our SSA payment Service Center would benefit, even from basic dress code, like no spandex, tshirts, sweatshirts or gym clothes, no shorts for men or over revealing outfits for women. As it is now, it is a circus, where anything goes, no matter how tasteless or out of place. Time for the ringmaster to make new rules.”

An HR Assistant with the VA in New Jersey writes: “When I first came on about two years ago…there was no dress code in place. However; last summer, the agency deemed it necessary to implement one due to the “overexposure’ of certain body parts such as “butt crack”, “cleavage”, “lower back tatoos” and ugly toes. Needless to say, it was quite necessary to implement a dress code. Not to mention the countless distractions it caused the veterans. I don’t think everyone should have to suffer for the sins of others…but unfortunately, some people take freedom-of-dress too far.”

An Administrative Assistant with GPO in Washington had this comment: “I think it’s a shame that we as a society have lowered our level of integrety to such that a dress code need to be implemented and enforced. A true professional will dress appropriately. However, I see people in business environments that are an ambarrassment to the professional. Unfortunately, more so in a Federal setting than in private industry. Being a Federal employee should require a higher standard. We not only represent the agency we work for but we represent the government as a whole.”

A supervisor with the Defense Dept. in Ft. Worth thinks dress codes are a good idea: “My observation of the years is productivity and quality of work are closely tied to the neatness of the employee. The old Gillette razor jingle of years ago still holds true, “Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp.”

A consultant with HHS in Missouri puts his/her opinion succinctly: “When you dress like a slob, you work like a slob.”

An Administrative Assistant with the VA in Long Beach, CA takes the issue to heart: “I cringe when I see employees arrive at work like they just rolled out of bed or worse yet looking like they could work at a place like ‘Hooters.’ Unfortunately, the union has blocked our attempts to have a dress code policy…If I were a patient here, I would go to some other facility for treatment…I would not trust the staff based on their non professional attitude and appearance.”

Several employees of the General Services Administration think their colleagues do not dress appropriately. Here is one comment: “I have to say this agency/location is the worse I have ever seen Federal employees dress in all my years in government service. Very unprofessional and only adds to the public’s negative opinion of government employees.”

Another GSA employee writes: “While a dress code should not be necessary, it apparently is needed. In my agency, I have seen countless people dressed in attire appropriate only for the beach or watching TV. No wonder taxpayers have such a poor image of federal employees.”

And a senior GSA official writes: “Dress guidelines (not a code) are needed to set a minimum standard for those few employees who wear inappropriate items to work, such as flip flops, sweat pants or shirts, tee shirts, shorts, or jeans. Unfortunately, managers are unable or unwilling to handle these matters.”

Several readers were not necessarily opposed to having a dress code but think the government should give them more money to dress up when coming to work. A clinic clerk with the VA in Danville, IL said “If the agency pays for my clothes, fine.”

But an Enforcement Specialist with the EPA disputes this notion and writes “Most federal employees make decent money. Cost for nice clothes is not an excuse.”

Thanks to all readers who took the time to vote in our most recent survey and particular thanks to those who sent in additional comments on the topic.

To see more comments and discussion of some of these issues, check out our introductory article on dress codes.

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. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47