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Code Red

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton was recently turned away from the Royal Box at Wimbledon for not complying with the dress code. He may have been well dressed by his standards but he did not wear the necessary jacket or tie and was therefore refused entry. Photos of him in his flowery shirt and trilby gave me the powerful impression he’d been attacked by a sofa recovered by Sandersons. Needless to say there’s been a big old hoo-hah about it all. (It must have been a slow news day.) Gary Lineker saw red and tweeted that it was British pomposity at its worst. Former tennis player Andy Roddick pointed out the invitation is quite clear about the dress code. Wimbledon is perfectly within its rights to ask gusts to meet certain minimum standards and to refuse entry if they don’t.

The Royal Box at Wimbledon is not the only place where a degree of formality is still required. Tea at the Ritz and formal dinners on P&O Cruises still list ties as part of the dress code. Some places are at the other end of the scale. Richard Branson won’t allow a tie to be worn at all because he doesn’t like them. He has been known to take a pair of scissors to people’s ties (those going for interviews at Virgin; you have been warned!). Other places have more practical reasons for not allowing ties. For example, hospitals doctors are not allowed ties as the dangling material rubbing across skin of various patients spreads infection. Police officers tend to wear clip-on ties for safety reason.

It is quite astonishing what judgements are made about character based only on appearance. Some years ago psychologist Ben Fletcher carried out research with over 300 adults, both men and women. The looked briefly at images of a man whose face was not shown clearly. But they could see what he was wearing. In some cases he wore a bespoke suit. In others he wore a very similar off-the-peg suit bought on the high street. The differences in the suits were very minor.

After a three-second exposure the majority of people judged the man in the bespoke suit more favourably. The judgements were not about how well dressed he was. They rated him as more confident, successful, flexible and a higher earner in a tailor-made suit than when he wore a high street equivalent. Since the model’s face was blanked out these impressions must have been formed after looking at what he was wearing.

This means our clothes say a great deal about who we are and can signal a great deal of socially important things to others, even if the impression is actually unfounded.

So many of us dress informally now and are uncomfortable wearing formal items. Perhaps we should think a bit harder about what our clothes are saying. For many people, what they wear is merely a matter of habit, but when we dress in the morning it might pay us to be a bit more careful in the choices we make.

In our office everyone is expected to wear a suit or tailored separates. Men are expected to wear a tie when they are with clients and long hair should be neatly tied back. Colour matters too. We wear dark jackets (navy, black, grey) for serious, difficult meetings and brightly coloured jackets for training or motivational speaking. Everyone is made aware of the dress code during the interview process because for some dressing like this is enough of a reason to turn down a job.

What is a reasonable dress code will depend on the workplace. For example, our dress code will not be appropriate for those working in a yard at a builder’s merchant. In that kind of working environment you would need to think about personal protective equipment (PPE) i.e. steel toe cap boots, high-vis clothing.

Set out your expectations of the dress code from the start. Inform potential employees at interview and also back it up in writing in your terms and conditions or employee handbook. The expectation in some businesses will be quite obvious, such as the yard example, but places such as offices can vary on what is acceptable depending on the particular company. Your employment documents should make it clear what is and what is not acceptable to both men and women. Consider what is reasonable and practical in your workplace. For us it’s a big no-no when it comes to flip flops, very high heels, miniskirts, hot-pants, vests, crop tops, ripped or torn clothing and anything see through for any workplace. It is not practical or professional in any work place (maybe only night clubs or fashion shops).

The appearance of your employees will say a lot about your company. What message are you trying to give to your customers and potential customers? Think about it this way, you need a solicitor; one is in jeans and t-shirt, the other in a suit, shirt and tie. Which one will you pick?

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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