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Best Dressed
This CEO Set up a Company-Wide Dress Code That's Only 2 Words — And It's Working Wonders
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AnnaMarie Houlis
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While dress codes don't always go over so well in the workplace, General Motors' new dress code is working wonders. 

The GM chief executive Mary Barra tells Quartz that the policy, in full, reads just two words. The dress code? "Dress appropriately." 

Studies show that dressing well can affect how we're perceived and how we feel in the workplace — and that can affect how much money we earn, too. A Yale University study had participants partake in mock negotiations. Those who dressed in suits earned an average profit of $2.1 million, while those who dressed in sweatpants earned an average profit of only $680,000.

But telling people how to dress can be problematic, especially in the workplace. That's why Barra, who has worked for GM since she was a teenager (first as a factory floor inspector and then as different roles in engineering and communications), decided to make the policy simple. She assumed the role of vice president of global human resources in 2009, months after GM had filed for bankruptcy, but instead of focusing on restructuring the company, she tackled seemingly small policies first, like the dress code.

At the Wharton People Analytics Conference, held in Philadelphia on March 23, she said: “A lot gets set aside when you’re going through a restructuring process, so it was an opportunity to really define our culture. 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. 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.”

She replaced the company's original 10-page treatise.

“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 said. “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.”

By simply stating to “dress appropriately,” Barra chooses to trust her employees’ judgments; and she says that the experience has proven to be liberating.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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