The other day a client told me a story about an argument that had broken out in her high-tech company over whether a group of programmers, wait for it ... needed to wear shoes (and socks) while they worked. Really? Have we taken the concept of a casually dressed workplace so far that being a barefooted software programmer is now a real thing?

As a branding and marketing strategist, and former management consultant, I'll run the risk of angering the shoeless contingent among you and say I think this is a very bad idea. Scads of studies have shown that what we wear has a definite impact on how we behave at work, and how others behave toward us.

We are what we wear. 

According to one study in the Journal of Research in Personality, appearance cues lead perceivers to accurately judge others' personality, status or politics.

Another study from a research team of psychological scientists from California State University, Northridge and Columbia University found that the clothes we wear can also influence the way we think. "The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person, and how people perceive themselves, but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style," the study says.

In an even more specific study, Norma Gaffin, director of content for Monster.com, says that a recent poll of 18,000 respondents revealed the following: 

  • Wearing shorts indicates a "vacation" state of mind.
  • Low-cut shirts that show cleavage, low-hanging pants or skirts that unveil underwear, short skirts, midriff-length tops, and clothes that are too small in general all emphasize body over brain. "People are not going to take you as seriously if you draw their eyes to inappropriate places and make them uncomfortable," says Gaffin.
  • Neon-bright colors, wild animal prints and overall eye-catching clothing will more than likely alienate, not impress, colleagues. You don't want to dress for a day at the office like you are going to a nightclub.

A separate Monster Meter poll revealed that an overwhelming 80 percent of workers deem flip-flops unacceptable in the workplace.  

Generation Z and Millennials have changed the game

But as Generation Z begins to enter the workplace and Millennials move up the ladder, more companies are going casual Monday through Friday.

Over the past decade, they have embraced business casual as their cultural dress for the simple reason that employees like it better and find it easier to do their jobs with shirt collars open, rather than all buttoned up.

Elizabeth Gordon, author of The Chic Entrepreneur, says that this trend is a result of changing demographics in the workplace and the increased virtualization of society.

"The Baby Boomers, who were more formal dressers, are leaving corporate America and retiring," says Gordon.

At the same time, younger generations, who grew up on the Internet, see peers who have made millions on a website business, wearing cut-offs and flip-flops to work," she points out.

As for Millennials, this group grew up with Baby Boomer parents who were hard-driving employees and hard-core business dressers. At the same time, they have been raised in a society that is overall much more casual.

As a result, they have taken a staunch stance on avoiding rules for rules' sake and a commitment to achieving work-life balance. Because of this, Gordon says, Millennials do the best job of navigating that fine line between formal business dress and business casual attire.

And a fine line it is. A big part of the problem is that many employers don't clearly define what business casual is, much to the detriment of the company.

Negotiating the fine sartorial line

The more freedom a company gives, the more people will push the envelope. Left on their own, employees will often interpret business casual as casual, forgetting about the business part.

For example: One of my colleagues told me that she knows an office where they had to send around a memo specifying that on blue jeans Friday, no butt cracks should be visible.

The solution to these fashion faux pas is for companies to spell out exactly what is and is not acceptable for business casual dress. One Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company dedicated a whole section of their website to the topic and put place cards on the cafeteria tables illustrating appropriate and inappropriate dress. 

The experts agree that the most important question to ask is: Is my clothing appropriate for my workplace?

The fashion hierarchy

So does this mean you should hang up your business suit and put away your ties? Even companies with a business casual climate expect employees to dress more formally when they are meeting with a client. Despite the proliferation of polo shirts and khaki pants, there is still a prominent amount of formal business dress in the workplace.

"There is a hierarchy of clothing for both men and women," says Barbara Pachter, author of New Rules @ Work. At the top of the list is a business suit and tie for men and a skirt suit for women. "These are still the most powerful look in business and a requirement in many professional environments," says Pachter, who points out that in the end, it seems, "We still expect lawyers to look like lawyers and bankers to look like bankers."

Published on: Dec 17, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.