From Forcing Out Non-Compliant Team Members to Quitting En Masse, Millennials Place Extreme Cultural Significance on Work Clothing

Two recent case examples from firms in Southern California show opposite ends of the spectrum in how Millennial and other younger employees respond to their perception of dress codes, whether those codes are formal or unwritten. Boomer executives leading both firms were surprised that fixation with work clothing created these separate challenges and have taken steps to address employees’ concerns.

Employers Might Expect Diverse Millennials to Be Less Rigid…  But the Reality is Not That Simple

American Millennial and adult Gen Z consumers are diverse on many dimensions including ethnicity, education, gender identification, and more. 

Your Company’s Style of Dress May Signal More to Millennial Employees than You Ever Intended

Along with being diverse, Millennials say they prefer casual dress at work. They are:

“Drawn to more casual workplaces (79% think they should be allowed to wear jeans to work at least sometimes).”

It would seem then, that Millennials and Gen Z would be open to team members who dress differently, speak differently and display a less-than-airbrushed image. 

Your Company’s Style of Dress May Signal More to Millennial Employees than You Ever Intended

Case Example #1: Employees Feel Their Success Threatened by Team Member Whose Style Doesn’t ‘Fit In’

A group of Gen Z and younger Millennials ages 23 to 29 recently approached the CEO of a highly successful $150 million financial services firm based in Santa Monica, California with concerns about a new team member in his 40s. Let’s call him Tom. Their specific concern was that Tom (who had his own business before joining the firm), had ‘goofy’ pictures of himself on his company website. And that these pictures of Tom could damage the image of their firm (even though they were on a different website). 

It was hard to understand what these pictures could be to drive such concern.  So, a group of local executives ages 29 to 60 reviewed Tom’s site and found ordinary pictures of Tom with a large fish he caught, wearing Disney clothing at a Disney vacation, and perhaps two other, similar images.  The pictures were found on a page of the website that was describing Tom and his interests. There was nothing inappropriate, objectionable or even questionable about the photos.   

In addition to the ‘goofy’ pictures, the young team members also did not approve of Tom’s work clothing (too casual), or his speaking style (too direct and brusque). Tom’s style was perceived to be at odds with the company culture and ‘smart casual’ style, and was far outside their comfort zone. Ultimately, Tom was not able to integrate with the team, and did not stay with the firm beyond a few months. 

The CEO has since changed the hiring process to include Gen Z and Millennial team members. The company is also working to articulate its culture and values more clearly. It retains the smart casual culture, which the younger team members seem to value.

Your Company’s Style of Dress May Signal More to Millennial Employees than You Ever Intended

Case Example #2: Employees Assume a Formal Culture Won’t Allow Remote Working, Accept Positions at More Casual Competitor

This $3 billon, B2B, privately-held firm makes considerable ongoing investment in promoting a strong workplace environment.  Walking through the halls, there are visible reminders to recognize other team members. Employees are encouraged to make suggestions and engage with others. The career paths of mid- and senior-level managers are carefully architected to provide diverse experiences and challenges. Boomer executives feel confident they are inspiring a healthy culture—but they recently found out many valuable Millennial employees disagree.  

In this white-collar setting, office dress is on the dressier side for Southern California, with women typically wearing business dresses or skirt combinations and men wearing khakis and dress shirts, but rarely jackets and never ties. The environment is still less formal than many traditional environments such as banks and insurance companies. But it’s more formal than other white-collar environments and far more formal than tech.

Just this month, several high-performing Millennial employees unexpectedly resigned.  In the exit interviews, two issues were cited:

  • An overly formal work culture that did not allow the wearing of blue jeans.
  • No perceived option to work remotely.

Because of the formal culture and lack of other remote workers, the exiting employees did not even ask about flexibility to work remotely before they accepted positions at another firm that offered working remotely two days a week and allowed jeans.

It’s likely that this firm will revise its dress code to include jeans, and also develop a remote working option.  This provides a second example of how work clothing norms are perceived to be a highly important symbol of the company culture.  It also shows that in the larger firm, it was considered easier to leave than to ask about casual dress or remote work options.

The conversation about blue jeans at work was surprising to a local CMO who said,

Back in 1994, we welcomed casual dress, including jeans, into the Fortune 100 firm based in New Jersey where I was working. At a mid-sized B2B firm in Chicago,  we welcomed casual dress in 2004.  Contrary to the perception that work quality and professionalism would decrease, we found just the opposite. It’s a little ironic to be debating blue jeans in 2019 in Southern California, but each organization is different.”

In some ways, it seems the personal image conveyed by employees in the workplace is growing more important than the work contribution of the team member and the output of the team.  These cultural signals are valued by younger workers, to the extent that they will leave if the dress code doesn’t suit their tastes. More formal companies are well-advised to consider ‘loosening up’ to smart casual, while still considering the aesthetics of current employees.