Recently I was having a discussion with a client about how lax dress code standards are today versus what he was used to from the workforce of forty years ago, when out of the blue he said: “Heck, people even used to wear suits to go to baseball games!” I agreed with him and then posed the question, “Why do you think that was?” He thought for a minute and said what I expected him to say: “Because back then, people used to know how to dress and act.” This idea that people used to be more appropriate in their attire is one that invariably comes up in every workshop I do – no matter what part of the country I’m in and no matter what the industry. For many employers, the less formal a dress code is, the less professional (and more disrespectful) the employees can become. But I see things differently.

Not a Hard Choice

We’ve probably all seen pictures or newsreels of baseball games from the 1920’s through the 1960’s where the men were in suits and the women were in dresses. That’s a far cry from how we dress for a baseball game today. But what’s the REAL reason men and women used to dress up?  It’s because they had no choice! Back in my grandparent’s day, people did not have a closet full of clothes and shoes. In those days, there was no such thing as a walk-in closet unless you were very wealthy.

Think about the old houses that you’ve seen. The closets were about 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep.  People had two sets of clothes: work clothes and church clothes. Nowadays, our closets are drastically different! If you’re like me, you might have 20 pairs of pants – including 8 varieties of jeans, 25 tops – 10 of which are variations of a white blouse, 15 pairs of shoes – ranging from flip flops to dress shoes, and of course several pairs of sneakers!

People only a couple of generations ago only had TWO options: work clothes OR church clothes. Going to a baseball game was an outing that was special.  So when you went somewhere special like a baseball game, you didn’t wear your work clothes; instead, you wore the only clothes you had for special events – the church clothes! People weren’t being any more respectful by dressing up for the baseball game.  They simply wore the only nice clothes they had. For my client, this was a real AHA moment.  He said he’d never thought about it that way before, but it made perfect sense because he too could remember his own parents’ and grandparents’ limited wardrobes.

Don’t Long for Empty Suits

Years ago, people did not have the variety of choices that we have today, but they made do with what they had available.  Sometimes it’s easy to wish for “the good ol’ days,” but do we really want to go back to a time when there were far fewer choices than we have today?  My guess is probably not. Besides, would you really prefer to have a staff of well-dressed, yet unmotivated employees?

What if you could have your ideal, team-playing personnel with outstanding productivity and undying loyalty to the company – but only if they can work in jeans and flip-flops – would it be worth it? If your answer is yes, then it might be worth it to put up with a relaxed dress code. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if you lose much of your top talent to competitors who offer more appealing workplace policies and perks. Odds are, you could improve retention simply by adjusting to your employee’s dress code preference instead of your own.

Think of it like a sacrifice fly in baseball – it’s not as pretty as a home run, but you’ll still score the runs.

Leah Brown is a Talent Retention Strategist at Magnet Culture, a firm committed to reducing unnecessary employee turnover for companies across the country. She is the contributing author of the 2018 book Staying Power: Why Your Employees Leave & How to Keep Them Longer, available on Amazon.