Dressing well impacts how employees are seen by their colleagues. Could it also impact how employees see themselves?
At some point or another, you have probably heard the phrase, “dress to impress” or “look good, feel good.” It sounds good in theory, but is there any truth to these popular adages?
Researchers have been looking at the relationship between dress and workplace performance for some time. But when Joseph Kim, PhD ’21, was working on his dissertation, he had a fresh perspective on the topic.
“[Kim] saw that people have done quite a bit of research on how we present ourselves, and the meaning our clothing has to others,” says Brian Holtz, associate professor of management and Kim’s dissertation chair. “He was interested in taking this another direction, and asking this really basic question. ‘Might getting dressed have an effect on the wearers’ themselves?’”
Think of a job interview, for example. It is widely agreed that the interviewer will judge the interviewee based on the clothing they wear. Kim, who will join the University of Illinois-Chicago as an assistant professor in the fall, was curious; would the interviewee see themselves differently, too?
Kim, Holtz and Ryan Vogel, associate professor of management, ask this question in their paper, “Wearing Your Worth at Work: The Consequences of Employees’ Daily Clothing Choices,” which examines how workers' self-esteem and work performance change based on the clothing that they wear.
Kim and his former professors administered both surveys and a behavioral experiment to office employees. They evaluated three different aspects of clothing: aesthetics (how attractive the clothing looks), dress conformity (how much the clothing conforms to others in the workplace) and uniqueness (how personalized or special the clothing seems).
When workers rated their outfits more highly in terms of these three dimensions, they reported feeling better about themselves.
“We saw each of those three things give a boost to an employee’s self-esteem,” says Holtz. “And that self-esteem translates into behavioral outcomes.”
Workers with higher self-esteem made greater progress on their goals for the day. In addition, they interacted more frequently with colleagues.
Another interesting finding was that conformity mattered more for people working in more populated office spaces. Under conditions where there is less social interaction, the importance of conformity diminishes.
“Think of it this way,” says Holtz. “If you go into work and nobody is there, whether you are wearing conforming attire doesn’t really matter. But when you are around other people, that dimension of clothing matters more.”
Holtz and colleagues are not under any false impressions that clothing alone can fix self-esteem and productivity issues in the office.
“We are not saying clothing is the be-all, end-all of people’s self-esteem,” says Holtz.
But it is a significant factor that can contribute to someone’s day. Many things are out of our control, but everyone gets dressed in the morning and can choose their outfit. Why not take advantage of this information, and dress to impress?
“Our view is, even if it has modest effects, this is something that everyone does everyday,” Holtz continues. “Taking a few extra moments and getting oneself in clothing that they feel are presentable and conform to the environment, we show that to be significant.”