There's no skirting the issue: Dress is important in business. Your personal appearance leaves a lasting impression on clients and often influences their decisions to do business with you.
But requiring employees to suit up in three-piecers isn't always the best policy. When designing dress codes, consider your type of business and your clients, said Wilbert Sykes, a psychiatrist who heads The TriSource Group Inc., a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based business consulting firm.
"Your dress should try to demonstrate the kind of service and the kind of product you're giving," said Dr. Sykes, who is often consulted on dressing. "We usually advise people to consider what kind of image your company is trying to portray and to see whether or not the way people dress conforms to that."
Those who sell elegant wares such as fine art must dress meticulously everyday. Likewise, most bankers and other professionals who deal with money wouldn't be caught dead without a dark suit and tie if they're male, or a dress or suit if they're female.
"People make a cross relationship in their heads about you and whether you are sober, serious and dependable, based upon how you look," said Lois Fenton, an image consultant and author of "Dress For Excellence." "If you'll be dealing with their money, they don't want to think of you as flighty or perhaps a shady character, which your clothes can suggest."
But a less conservative business may find the starched look a liability. Dr. Sykes cited a rock band manager who dressed in a preppy style. Band members felt that if he cut his hair more strikingly and wore an earring, he'd be able to book more gigs.
Similarly, employees at Shonin, a Baltimore furniture store which sells futons and other Asian furniture, have a lot of freedom with their outfits, so long as they don't wear jeans or shorts. Some employees sport shaved heads and multiple earrings. Others come to work in long shirts and tights.
"Some of us dress pretty bizarrely here," admitted Sarah Trousdale, manager of the Belvedere Square store. "The way we dress fits in with the decor, and the stuff we sell, which is sort of progressive."
Don't expect the dress code for one department to apply to the whole corporation, said John T. Molloy, author of "Dress For Success" and a national image consultant. Large companies may have separate codes for factory workers, engineers and management.
Small businesses probably need only two dress codes: one for employees who meet the public, and one for those who don't. Casual dress is usually fine for those who never meet with the public -- but it should have limits, Mr. Molloy said.
"There's a certain line of sloppiness which shouldn't be crossed, because it can disrupt efficiency," he said. In studies he's conducted, new employees who are trained amid a carelessly dressed group emerge with the attitude that they don't have to work so hard.
When seeking ideas for a dress code, don't overlook employees.
For example, after managers at a Northeastern computer software firm broached the subject of dress a few years ago, employees suggested slipping smocks over their casual garb when dealing with clients. The smocks, which would sport pockets containing official-looking instruments, would impress clients without forcing workers to wear suits daily.
"People were saying that if they wore high-tech clothes, like the smock, it would be more in keeping with the machinery that they were dealing with and would give an idea of what could be expected from them," Dr. Sykes said. "And for that crowd, being able to wear comfortable clothes was important."
Don't nit-pick, Mr. Molloy advised. Rather than requiring suits, employees might be expected to appropriate garb when meeting the public. "You don't want to get too specific, because then you're nailed into a corner," he said. "Styles change, some guy might have a skin disease and want to wear a beard, and what are you going to do if the dress code says 'No beards' ?"
"But," he added, "you really do have to set something down in writing and tell all your new employees about it, because if you don't, one of your employees can do something ridiculous" -- and come in with a tattooed forehead.
Although it's widely believed that professional dress leads to increased productivity, many companies are scheduling days when employees dress casually.
A recent survey by athletic shoe maker Converse Inc. of North Reading, Mass., showed that 38 percent of 201 companies had created periodic "casual days" -- largely to boost morale.
"There's a price people pay for formality and rigidity, and when you allow them to break out of it for a little while, it's a very good glue for subsequent relationships," Dr. Sykes explained. Dressing down can help relieve burnout, he said, because it provides a break from routine.