Influencer QA

Influencing Unprofessional Dress

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.



QDear Crucial Skills,

I started my job a couple years ago and immediately observed a decided lack of commitment to dressing professionally. I didn’t want to make this an issue at the beginning of my tenure, as there were bigger fish to fry, but now I feel it’s time to address it.

We have seven offices, so multiple players are involved instead of one or two employees. I’ll have to convince the seven office managers of the importance of professional dress first then work with them to encourage their employees to dress professionally. How can I start a crucial conversation and motivate employees at various levels to dress professionally?

Dress for Success

A Dear Dress for Success,

Well, you came to either the right or the wrong guy for this question. I abhor suits. I often wear them for speeches but as soon as I get to the airport, I find a lockable door and eject it as fast as I can. So I’m going to both respond to your question and question your question.

I assume you are not the owner or CEO of the company and that your challenge is peer persuasion—not gaining compliance with your own policy. It sounds as though you have some decision-making authority over your own office but that peers manage the others. With that assumption, here are some thoughts.

You might be wrong. Before trying to motivate employees to dress professionally, I’d suggest you consult your colleagues and come to Mutual Purpose. Share your view of the relationship between dress and performance then invite them to share theirs. Is this an industry norm? Are people dressing casually or inappropriately? What is the right level of dress for the image you want to project? What makes customers comfortable and reinforces your credibility? What is just personal preference and might be irrelevant? Be sure to make it safe for your colleagues to express any view and encourage them to weigh in with feedback they might have received or data they can cite to help you make a fact-based decision on the policy.

Agree on a test. If you mutually conclude that dress might improve employee performance or customer perception, try a pilot. Perhaps you can do it in your office since you’re most interested in the concept. Or perhaps it would be best to do it elsewhere as the results will be more trusted if others do the test. Agree on how you’ll evaluate the pilot. For example, you may agree to start with your office and move to a new code for three months then survey customers to test the reaction. Be sure to agree on the design of the survey in advance so you aren’t accused of manipulating the data to support your thesis.

Engage employees. Assuming your peers agree there is potential merit, you next need to take up the issue with your team. This might be tough. Casual is always easier. Plus, a different dress code could be expensive to those whose wardrobes don’t include more formal attire. Be sensitive to this issue and find a way to adapt to people’s economic constraints. In our Influencer book, we describe three ways you can help people change their minds—verbal persuasion, vicarious experience, and direct experience. In this case, I’d suggest the latter. Get a handful of opinion leaders from your team and take them on a field trip to a place with different dress standards. Design the field trip in a way that lets them observe the effects of professional dress, interview some of those who are practicing it, etc. Then bring them back to debrief with your larger team.

Be flexible. I’ll end where I started. I’m a jeans and sneakers kind of guy, but I also understand that clothes are part of the message so I dress up when needed. I’d suggest that even if better dress is the right answer, you could create a nuanced policy that required it when it was useful. For example, some companies have a policy of dressing up for outward facing meetings. In other words, when clients will be in the office or you’re going to theirs, dress up. When not visiting with a client or customer, dress casual.

I wish you the best as you work your way through this. Drop me a line when you decide what to do and see how it works. I’d love to hear the postscript!