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
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:
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
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
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.
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?
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
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.