Personnet Management

Personnet Management

Employee Perceptions ©TheAuthor{s)2oi3 ^ _ _ _ ^ – Reprints and permissions:

OT the Impact of Dt*eSS 3,nCl ‘ DOI: 10.1177/0091026013495772

Appearance: You Are What p You Wear

Katherine A. Karl’, Leda Mclntyre HalP, and Joy V. Peluchette’

Abstract This study focuses on city employees and their perceptions regarding the innportance of dress and appearance in the public sector workplace. Using the impression management literature and self-presentation theory, v^e examine the Impact of mode of dress worn (casual, business casual, formal business) on their self-perceptions of creativity, productivity, trustworthiness, authoritativeness, friendliness, and competence. We also examine their beliefs regarding the impact of employee appearance on customer perceptions of service quality. Our results suggest that “you are what you wear.” Respondents felt more competent and authoritative when wearing either formal business or business casual, more trustworthy and productive when wearing business casual, and least friendly and creative when wearing formal business attire. Respondents also believed that uniforms had a positive impact on customer perceptions of overall service quality, and that tattoos, athletic wear, unconventional hairstyles or hair color, sweat pants, facial piercings, revealing clothing and clothing with tears, rips or holes had a negative impact. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.

Keywords workplace attire, dress code, impression management, service quality

‘University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, USA ^Indiana University South Bend, USA ^University of Wollongong, Australia

Corresponding Author: Katherine A. Karl, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 615 McCallie Avenue, Chattanooga, TN 337403-2598, USA. Email:

Karl et al. 453


Significant shifts have occurred over the past decade in what is viewed as acceptable workplace attire. Although traditionally formal with suits and ties, workplace attire became more casual in the late 1990s with the boom of hi-tech and dotcom firms (Pames, 2001). Recently, many organizations have shifted back to a more professional standard of dress, with some even resorting to uniforms or corporate attire (Araneta, 2003; Lee, 2003; Lindeman, 2004; Munoz, 2001; Oleck & Prasso, 2001; Podmolik, 2003). There is still, however, widespread use of business casual or “dress casual” days, based on the notion that such attire contributes to higher employee morale and productivify (Hunsberger, 2005; Morand, 1998; Walter, 1996). In fact, according to a 2007 Benefits Survey by the Sociefy for Human Resource Management, 66% of human resource management professionals responded that their organizations offered casual dress days at least once a week, and 37% allowed casual dress every day (2007 Benefits, 2007).

Given that corporations see a link between workplace attire and other workplace outcomes that are tied to profitabilify, it is not surprising that much of the research on workplace attire has focused on the private sector. However, the same struggle to adopt dress and appearance guidelines that encourage employee productivify and pro- fessionalism has become an increasingly important issue in the public sector and some federal, state, and local offices have adopted policies to standardize attire for public employees (J. S. Bowman & Hooper, 1991; Gilbert, 2003). For example, the cify gov- ernment in Auburn, NY, recently banned the wearing of jeans on Fridays, a day tradi- tionally reserved for casual attire (Armour, 2007). Similarly, in an effort to eliminate its reputation for poor service and low employee morale, the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles went through a major turnaround in 2005 which included a new dress code of navy shirts and khakis (Smith, 2008). However, as baby boomers retire and govern- ment offices face problems in attracting and retaining younger workers, questions are being raised as to how strictly the line should be drawn on attire and other appearance factors in the public sector (Joyce, 2007).

To that end, this study focuses on cify employees and their perceptions regarding the importance of dress and appearance in the public sector workplace. More specifi- cally, using the impression management literature and self-presentation theory, we examine the impact of mode of dress worn (casual, business casual, formal business) on their self-perceptions of creativify, productivify, trustworthiness, authoritativeness, ftiendliness, and competence. We also examine their beliefs regarding the impact of employee appearance on customer perceptions of service qualify and finally, their preferences for several dress styles, including uniforms.

Role of Attire in Impression Management

Impression management, also called self-presentation, is the process by which indi- viduals aftempt to control the impressions others form of them (Gofftnan, 1959; Jones, 1990; Rosenfeld, Edwards, & Thomas, 2005; Schlenker, 1980). The past

454 Public Personnel Management 42(3)

decade has seen an explosion of books in the popular press providing advice on how individuals can manage other’s impressions through their dress (Bixler, 1997; Morem, 1997; Sabath, 2000; Waldrop, 1997). Pioneered by John T. Molloy’s New Dress for Success Book (Molloy, 1988), the common theme in these books is that clothing deci- sions can make a difference in how one is perceived by others and that clothing wear- ers can use their attire decisions to influence the impressions formed by others in the workplace. In support, studies have shown that the way a person dresses influences others’ impressions of their credibility (O’Neal & Lapitsky, 1991), sociability (Johnson, Nagasawa, & Peters, 1977), status (Mast & Hall, 2004; Sybers & Roach, 1962), professionalism, intelligence, competence, efficiency, honesty, and reliability (Y. Kwon, 1994b; Y. H. Kwon & Färber, 1992). Evidence also suggests that indi- viduals consciously use their attire to manage the impressions of others with formal business attire being used to enhance status and respect (Rucker, Anderson, & Kangas, 1999) and more casual dress to develop cotinections with others (Rafaeli, Dutton, Harquail, & Mackie-Lewis, 1997).

In a 1992 study, J. S. Bowman (1992) surveyed personnel officials from fotir agen- cies (the departments of administration, finance, and commerce and the executive office ofthe govemor in all 50 states) and found that 75% ofthe managers in their sample believe that employees who are well-dressed and groomed are perceived as more intelligent, hardworking, and socially acceptable than those with a more casual appearance. The author adds that most respondents believe that

dress establishes a level of respect and authority often necessary to get work done, and rests on the premise that certain kinds of clothes preclude certain types of behavior. Casually attired employees neither command nor show the respect they do when dressed according to agency norms. (J. S. Bowman, 1992, p. 39)

In stimmarizing the findings. Bowman concludes that “employees who have not mastered the simple art of presenting themselves are not likely to master the more complex skills needed to manage people, administer programs, and work with the public” (p. 47). This supports earlier arguments made by J. S. Bowman and Hooper, (1991) that “good dress and good grooming” in govemment agencies allow the wearer to reflect professional confidence and communicate credibility and responsibility.
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