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​A Dress Code in Two Words​​

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When General Motors' CEO Mary Barra became vice president of GM's Global Human Resources in 2009, one of the first things she took on was the company’s dress code. Now, that seems like a rather trivial focus considering the organization had just filed for bankruptcy; one would think more pressing matters than exploring the mundane intricacies of what can and cannot be worn to work might warrant her attention.

But the dress code was exactly the issue where Ms. Barra wanted to start. According to this article from Quartz at Work, she said “A lot gets set aside when you’re going through a restructuring process, so [starting with the dress code] was an opportunity to really define our culture.”

She took the 10-page dress code and reduced it to two words: “Dress appropriately.”

If any of you know (or have heard rumors about) behemoth-bureaucracied conglomerates, you can imagine the resistance she faced. (Shoot, it doesn’t take a conglomerate to get its feathers in a bunch over something like this. Resistance to such an approach would probably happen in any organization. In fact, I can imagine how many of you are similarly shocked by this approach or, at the very least, think it’s interesting and maybe even cool but “would never work in my organization.”)

But what was underlying almost every reaction was the belief that people either could not or would not follow an open-ended code. And every one of those reactions spoke volumes about the culture that existed within the organization.

Barra was using the dress code as a first salvo in changing that culture. Something as simple as telling people, effectively, to just do the right thing showed that the company had faith in employees’ decision-making skills, the company trusted employees to not take advantage of the situation, and the company believed in the skills and understanding of its employees. It was a solid step toward exhibiting a corporate culture of faith, trust, and empowerment

As Barra stated, “If they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately,’ what other decisions can they handle?”

We all seem to be spending a lot of time talking about auditing the corporate culture. But it seems everyone is struggling with just how internal audit can attack the situation.

Well, maybe the start isn’t as hard as we think. Ask yourself, how many words in your dress code? Does the volume of words indicate trust in the employees, or does it exhibit a corporate belief that all employees look for excuses to circumvent the rules? Is the dress code simple enough to show that employees are empowered to use their best judgment in all situations, or does it tell employees that, without detailed specifics, those employees are too unprofessional to be trusted to dress the way they should.

Look everywhere.

How many words are in your code of conduct? Is it as simple as Alphabet’s “Do the right thing?” Or is it a filibuster of do’s and don’ts and if-you-do-this-you-will-have-to-pay-this-kind-of-hell?

Can your employee handbook be stated as simply as Nordstrom’s “Use good judgment in all situations”? Or is it the centerpiece of week-long training on everything from where to hang your coat in the morning to how one should genuflect when in the presence of corporate executives.

Look, I’m not going to say any of these companies is perfect. And to be honest, I can’t tell you exactly how well these abbreviated codes have worked. But they’ve been around long enough that they still stand as the gold-standard for how to approach employees.

So, if you want to start to get a handle on the culture of your organization you don’t have to see exactly how people are being treated. (Although, you won’t want to ignore that either.) All you have to do is start exploring how much trust employees are given when the rules and standards are being articulated.

And, if that shows the culture needs to be changed, use the courage of a true trusted advisor and begin to let others know that it might be time for a change.​​

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