How to encourage young hires to dress more professionally

Mar 21, 2019 | Development

Institute of Student Employers found that employers were four times more likely to be unhappy with the way that their apprentices dressed than the way that graduates dressed. ISE researcher Tristram Hooley considers what employers can do about it.

We have just launched our annual Development Survey, which raises some interesting insights on skills and how employer expectation matches reality. 

One of the more interesting findings was around professionalism and that that employers were four times more likely to be unhappy with the way that their apprentices dressed than the way that graduates dressed.

We know that in this context this is not a question about who is the snappiest dresser. Employers are (generally) not fashion experts and so the question is not about whether students are bang on trend, but rather about whether they fit in, represent the company appropriately, look professional and send out the right messages. 

The issue for young people, or for people moving into a new environment, is that a lot of what may seem obvious to the employer is completely new to the new employee. 

The following tips are designed to help to address this kind of mismatch of expectation. 


For employers

  1. Be transparent. If it is important that your employees dress a certain way then make sure that you tell them. Something that seems obvious to you, may not be obvious to someone from a different background or generation. It may even be helpful to have a formal dress code. 
  2. Give constructive feedback. If you are not happy with the way that someone is dressing in your firm, try and give them supportive, developmental feedback and explain why this matters to you.
  3. Lead by example. The CEO and senior management team help to define the culture of an organisation. More junior staff will look at how you dress and draw conclusions from it. It generally isn’t good for there to be one rule for you and another one for the rest of the organisation. 
  4. Consider how dress contributes to your culture. Many firms have a ‘suit and tie’ culture by default. Is that the culture you want to create and the image that you want to portray? Many highly successful firms have moved away from this, so this may be something that you should consider. 
  5. Be careful. How people dress is important to them and their identity. It is also often bound up with equality strands (age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability etc.). If you make rules, give advice and discipline staff about how they dress you need to be sure that you have good reasons for what you are doing and that you are aware of unconscious bias. 


For students

  1. Remember that how you dress communicates something about who you are and how you want others to see you. Spend time before you go to work thinking about how you are dressed and what messages that you are projecting. 
  2. Look at how other people in your workplace dress. Workplaces are full of unspoken rules, sometimes you can only figure them out by looking at how other people dress and behave.
  3. Start more conservatively; you can always push the boundaries later on. Dressing too boringly is rarely a problem. As you understand what is expected you will be able to work out where you can show off more of your personality without being seen as outrageous. 
  4. Ask for feedback. Find someone you trust, and ideally whose sense of style you admire. Ask them for their feedback and advice. 
  5. Don’t do anything that you feel uncomfortable doing. Not all employers have appropriate or legitimate dress codes. If you feel that you are being asked to wear something that makes you uncomfortable, or which you think is discriminatory, be prepared to speak up or talk to human resources. 


Read more about skills in the ISE Development Survey 2019.

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