Is a Two-Word Dress Code Good Enough for General Motors?

Is a Two-Word Dress Code Good Enough for General Motors?

Since taking up the position of CEO at General Motors in 2014, Mary Barra has undertaken to transform the culture of the storied American automaker. As the automotive industry and other legacy manufacturers find themselves increasingly in competition with big tech companies for talent—in Detroit’s case, a product of the race to market self-driving cars—they have had to expand their talent attraction strategies outside their traditional blue-collar comfort zone and reach out to candidates with very different expectations and values, as well as more diverse backgrounds.

Barra’s approach to culture change at GM has focused in part on simplifying rules and policies that might strike this new generation of talent as arbitrary and overly bureaucratic, such as the dress code, which she shrunk from a detailed section in the employee handbook to just two words: “Dress appropriately.” Barra told the story at the Wharton People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia last month, from which Quartz’s Leah Fessler passes it along:

After replacing GM’s 10-page dress code treatise with a two-word appeal, Barra received a scathing email from a senior-level director. “He said, ‘You need to put out a better dress policy, this is 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.” The director explained that occasionally, some people on his team had to deal with government officials on short notice, and had to be dressed appropriately for that.

“Okay, why don’t you talk to your team,” Barra replied. “He was an established leader at GM, responsible for a pretty important part of the company, with a multimillion-dollar budget. 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.’”

A lot of large companies have scaled back their formerly buttoned-up dress codes in recent years, as large legacy firms like banks and consultancies find themselves competing for tech talent with the more relaxed work cultures of Silicon Valley (just as General Motors has). Barra’s two-word dress code sends a message to employees that GM isn’t interested in policing their sartorial decisions, as long as they remain within the bounds of common sense and good taste.

There is, however, a potential downside to this kind of simplicity. “Appropriately” is a subjective term, and so an employee’s compliance will depend on management’s perception of what is appropriate—and let’s remember that managers tend to be straight, white, older men. While the director Barra talked about at the Wharton conference had a legitimate concern with a simple solution, what about a manager who gives black employees a hard time about their hair? Black Americans who wear natural hairstyles are frequently told that their hair violates dress codes, which courts have been reluctant to consider discriminatory. Women, likewise, often run the risk of being labeled unprofessional if they don’t wear skirts and high heels to work.

While Barra’s intentions are surely to make GM more inclusive, not less, a “dress appropriately” policy might inadvertently open the way for managers to use it against employees of certain genders, races, cultural backgrounds, or other identities. If the only “appropriate” dress code is one that excludes “other” demographic groups, it’s not supporting an inclusive culture. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t happen, but given what we know about diversity and inclusion in corporate America, it is still a good idea for company policies to put checks on this kind of exclusive behavior and make sure employees enjoy the psychological safety to bring their “whole selves” to work.