General Motors' 2-Word Dress Code Will Revolutionize The Way We Approach Workplace Attire

CEO Mary Barra replaced GM's 10-page dress code with this two-word rule.

Companies are obsessed with creating trustworthy customer experiences in order to retain loyalty. However, when it comes to internal standards, many organizations express subtle distrust in their employees by policing their attire at length. But, in the case of General Motors, less just so happens to be more.

After being named vice president of global human resources at GM in 2009, now-CEO Mary Barra developed an exceptionally succinct dress code policy that cut right to the heart of the matter. Instead of bombarding employees with 10 pages of do's and don'ts, she narrowed those requirements to two words. 

"Dress appropriately."

"A lot gets set aside when you're going through a restructuring process, so it was an opportunity to really define our culture," Barra told Adam Grant during the Wharton People Analytics Conference (video below). "So, brainstorming with the HR department, I said let's change the dress code. Let's make it 'dress appropriately.' " 

"But the HR department ironically posed my first hurdle," she added. "They started arguing with me, saying, it can be 'dress appropriately' on the surface, but in the employee manual it needs to be a lot more detailed. They put in specifics, like, 'Don't wear T-shirts that say inappropriate things, or statements that could be misinterpreted.' What does inappropriate in the context of a T-shirt, even mean? So I finally had to say, 'No, it's two words, that's what I want.' What followed was really a window into the company for me."

After replacing GM's 10-page dress code with this two-word rule, however, Barra received an email from a senior-level director complaining that the new policy was not enough. "So I called him — and of course that shook him a little bit. And I asked him to help me understand why the policy was inept."

According to the director, some people on his team occasionally had to deal with government officials on short notice, and had to be dressed appropriately for such instances. Barra then suggested he talk to his team to come up with an agreeable solution.

"He was an established leader at GM, responsible for a pretty important part of the company, with a multimillion-dollar budget," Barra explained to the audience. "He called me back a few minutes later, saying, 'I talked to the team, we brainstormed, and we agreed that the four people who occasionally need to meet with government officials will keep a pair of dress pants in their locker. Problem solved.'"

"What I realized is that you really need to make sure your managers are empowered — because if they cannot handle 'dress appropriately,' what other decisions can they handle? And I realized that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them," she added. "But if you let people own policies themselves — especially at the first level of people supervision — it helps develop them. It was an eye-opening experience, but I now know that these small little things changed our culture powerfully. They weren't the only factor, but they contributed significantly."

While dress codes rarely target men, as suits and ties are an undeniable staple, many policies dictate what women can and cannot wear. For instance, in the U.K., citizens were up in arms last year when a temp worker was sent home after she refused to wear high heels at work. Yet, while many similar dress codes are blatantly sexist, this lengthy treatises also imply that the given company doesn't trust their employees' judgment. If that's the case, why did they hire these workers in the first place? 

Barra's simple decision, however, empowers employees and managers to take charge of their own comportment, thereby changing company culture for the better.

Cover image via  Linda Parton / Shutterstock

(H/T: Inc.)

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