AMY LINDGREN: Dress codes at work – counsel for millennials

Amy Lindgren

If you’re effective at your job, should it matter what you wear to work? For millennials, the answer is “Yes, absolutely.” More on that in a moment. First, it’s helpful to unpack the question in broader terms.

While arguments against dress codes have been around as long as workplaces have existed, so have the reasons to observe them. On the one hand, workers may believe they’re more productive when wearing the clothes they’re most comfortable in. Fair enough. But employers may feel that productivity increases overall when no one is distracted by someone else’s sartorial choices. Also a fair point.

This tit-for-tat can go several rounds, with each side presenting reasonable arguments. How will it ever get resolved? That’s easy: Whoever has the most power will win the fight. If you have a job that you wish to keep, the boss has the power over you.

But if your boss wants to keep you, the power has shifted – to a certain degree, that is. Push too hard and you’ll discover the meaning of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” Even deeply valued employees can find themselves collecting unemployment if the boss decides it’s easier to struggle with the workload than with the worker.

Books have been filled with advice about how to dress on the job, or how to impress potential employers by dressing for interviews. Depending on your field, you can easily find wardrobe tips online. Which leaves just this question: Why do it at all? Why make a special point to dress for work? If a job can be done in dress pants, can’t it be done just as well in jeans?

The answer to that is almost certainly no, and even more certainly no if you are a younger worker without “gravitas” – that certain something that gives others confidence in your ability. Following are 10 reasons to put effort into your workday appearance, along with two guidelines for what that might mean in practical terms.

Reason 1 – If your boss doesn’t have to focus on how you look, he or she can focus on your work.

2 – Ditto for you. When you’re dressed more like the others on your team, you can stop thinking about your clothing and focus on the work instead.

3 – Dressing for work is a habit that gets easier. Once you have a basic look, you don’t have to think hard to get dressed each day.

4 – Clients feel more confident in staff members whose look conforms to certain standards for the field.

5 – It’s only eight hours. If that seems too long, you have chosen the wrong work.

6 – People assume you know more when you’re dressed better. It’s like giving your wardrobe a British accent.

7 – When people assume you know more, they treat you better. When they treat you better, work becomes more fun.

8 – Dressing differently for work differentiates each part of your day.

9 – Taking pride in how you look indicates that you take pride in your work.

10 – Seriously? Doesn’t it feel kind of middle-school to be rebelling about what you’re wearing?

If you agree with those reasons, it’s logical to wonder how to implement the concept of “dressing for work.” Here are those guidelines.

1. Dress every day as if you wanted the next job up the line. The corollary to this is: Dress for your boss, not your colleagues. For example, if your team members wear jeans, spiff up your look by donning a blazer. It’s not difficult to find a small touch that gives the message you’re trying harder. And trying harder is exactly the attitude bosses watch for in their younger staff members, to help them decide who to invest in.

2. Feel free to be original, but within bounds. It’s possible to express yourself without shocking the workplace system. Hair color, tattoos, piercings – these can all be done in most jobs on a “lite” basis – but realize that there may be a big difference in your field between a subtle nose stud and a full-out nose ring. Yes, they’re both facial piercings but no, they’re not the same in their impact. If you have any doubt about whether something would be acceptable, then it probably isn’t.

Whatever else you do about workplace wardrobe issues, remember to keep a sunny attitude. Really, no one’s forcing you to dress up. You can always quit and find work that better suits your wardrobe. But if you like your job, approach the dress code as another opportunity to succeed. Nailing this means you can handle other challenges too.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.