In a recent interview with Tennis magazine, Bernard Giudicelli, president of the French Tennis Federation stated that the French Open tournament would introduce a dress code. He specifically called out the catsuit Serena Williams wore during this year's French Open, noting, "It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place."

The Nike catsuit served a functional purpose for Williams, who'd had problems with blood clots since giving birth last year. She explained to reporters at a May press conference:

"I've had a lot of problems with my blood clots, God I don't know how many I've had in the past 12 months. I've been wearing pants in general a lot when I play so I can keep the blood circulation going."

Since the French Open, Williams has stated she's found other ways to manage the clots while playing and has downplayed the controversy around the pending dress code. She noted in a press conference that she's already talked to Giudicelli, and that "everything's fine."

While Williams may be fine with how everything has gone down in catsuit-gate, there are plenty of people both in and out of the tennis world who are outraged about both the dress code and Giudicelli's comments.

Dress codes can be touchy subjects, especially in the business world. And if you're not careful, something as simple as what people wear to work can have a major impact on your results. 

How your dress code impacts company culture and performance

At my last corporate job, we were permitted to wear jeans to work every day during the summer. For all other seasons, jeans could only be worn on Fridays. I couldn't understand how an item of clothing be acceptable on one day and not the next.

As a result, I advocated to senior leaders for jeans all year. They discussed and declined the request. This was all time we could have spent serving our customers better and figuring out a way to grow our business.

The irony is that this company (a subsidiary of a large healthcare company), wasn't profitable yet. Morale was low. Time spent policing our dress code could have better been used solving the problems with the business model or improving the company culture.

Earlier this year, new GM CEO Mary Barra turned heads when she replaced the company's 10-page dress code with two words, "dress appropriately." Initially, Barra received significant resistance from her senior leaders, but she stood firm on the simple policy she felt empowered all employees to bring their best selves to work, without being told what they should look like in practice. 

At the Wharton People Analytics Conference in March, Barra explained the positive impact this shift had on the company culture:

"What I realized is that you really need to make sure your managers are empowered--because if they cannot handle 'dress appropriately,' what other decisions can they handle? And I realized that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them.

"But if you let people own policies themselves--especially at the first level of people supervision--it helps develop them. It was an eye-opening experience, but I now know that these small little things changed our culture powerfully."

Business is about belonging. And for many people, clothing has an impact on whether or not people show up at their best. And the reality is, we often don't know the underlying reasons folks choose to wear what they wear.

For Serena Williams, her catsuit helped her with a medical challenge. For others, their clothing may be for religious reasons, cultural or creative expression, or based upon what their finances allow.

Some people work better when they are in a t-shirt. Others feel like dressing up optimizes their performance. We're all different, and we need to respect and embrace those differences to enable everyone to bring their best selves to work. 

The dress code you implement within your company will have an impact whether it is a 10-page document or two words. Make sure your dress code supports the company culture you want to build and nurture. Otherwise, it can be a hindrance.  

Published on: Aug 27, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.