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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Dress code a sign of generation gap

By Linda White
Special to the Toronto Sun

Recently, I was asked to give recommendations on dressing for success for today's business climate. A universal dress code that enhances an employee's success no longer exists.

In the last 10 years, a more relaxed business environment has replaced many traditional mores, such as the conventional dress code.

For example, if you don't directly work with the public, jeans are acceptable at some larger companies. Others dictate attire to reinforce the belief everything about the company and employees represents the kind of service, quality or product customers receive.

Employers and employees' perceptions of words such as "business casual" or "dress-down days" can be dramatically different, leading to a negative effect on employee morale and retention.

A company should have the right to decide what image it wants to market and portray to its customers. Developing a brand name comes from consistently sending the same message about an organization in everything it does.

The onus falls on employers to thoroughly inform potential employees about required dress codes. Confusion can be eliminated through new employee orientation and written policies on this issue.

If individuals have a preference for the type of environment they want to work in, they should ask questions about culture and dress expectations at the interview.

If the company's policies do not match the candidate's preferences, the candidate doesn't have to take the job.

Precarious position

It's unfair to employers who have a standard for what employees should wear if, after informing candidates of these standards during the interview, these individuals grumble about no dress-down days once they're hired.

Companies that maintain dress codes or policies that will affect employees put themselves in a precarious position.

If organizations do not embrace the needs of Generation Xers (21- to 36-year-olds) and Millenials (zero to 20-year-olds), they will quickly lose these motivated and productive people who can positively affect the bottom line.

"The generations frequently disagree on company loyalty, job rewards, authority, tenure, teamwork, work/life balance, career sacrifices and more," says Joanna L. Krotz in her article, Why Can't Boomers and Gen X Just Get Along.

Baby boomers still make the rules, but they are pulling out their hair trying to make the Gen Xers follow them.

And not only will the young employees not follow them, they will very quickly take their skills somewhere else.

"Organizations must retain their talent. They must create an environment in which talented young people (and people of all ages) have opportunities to grow their leadership skills without feeling the need to seek greener or saner pastures," says Frederick A. Miller in the article, Who Will Take the Baton?

So far, there isn't an uproar about issues such as dress code because baby boomers still dominate the workforce.

'Paying dues'

"Boomers tend to give themselves over to their jobs and believe in paying dues, playing by the rules and building careers," says Claire Raines, author of Generation at Work.

If employers are going to win the war of productivity and profit, they need the skills and talents of the Gen Xers and Millenials.

Will companies who have dress codes or other strict policies about work-life balance issues attract or retain this talent?

"In a nutshell, they distrust hierarchy. They prefer more informal arrangements," Krotz says. "They prefer to judge on merit rather than on status."

A simple debate about what people should wear to work is actually part of more complicated issues of generations trying to understand each other and employers seeking to retain high performers.

"If we continue to believe as we have always believed, we will continue to act as we have always acted; and that if we continue to act as we have always acted, we will continue to get what we have always gotten," says author Marilyn Ferguson.

I have heard this quote referred to as a definition for insanity.

-- Vicky Smith is owner of Contact Human Resource Group, which is internationally partnered with Express Personnel Services.

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