Do I Have to Institute a Dress Code at My Small Business? (Podcast) | Ep. #093

The Hartford

Whether they’re buttoned up in a three-piece suit or casually garbed in a tee-shirt and khakis, how your employees present themselves can tremendously impact your small business. So, how do you know if it’s time to curb your staff’s current wardrobe choices with a new dress code or uniform? In episode #93, Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks discuss how business owners can effectively use dress codes to enhance their brand image.

Executive Summary

2:17—Today’s Topic: Does Your Small Business Need a Dress Code?

4:04—For consumer-facing businesses or stores, employee uniforms can serve as a powerful branding tool, provided that they are consistent with your business’s image.

6:03—A minimum dress code could be helpful if you’re concerned that your employees might dress inappropriately.

8:07—In more formal business settings, dress codes might be more necessary because you need to convey a certain degree of professionality when you meet clients.

11:38—Gene stresses the importance of running a conference call properly in order to prevent any potential misunderstandings.


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Elizabeth: Okay. Welcome back to the Small Biz Ahead Podcast. I’m Elizabeth Larkin, the editor of Small Biz Ahead and I’m here with Gene Marks.

Gene: I’m Gene Marks.

Elizabeth: And you are?

Gene: I am a … I own The Marks Group, and I do a lot of writing all over, and I study small businesses, and act as a small business person.

Elizabeth: And tell us a little bit about The Marks Group just for new listeners, ’cause we have a bunch of new listeners now.

Gene: So, we have six-hundred clients, ten employees, a dozen or so contractors, and we sell sales and marketing technologies, mostly CRM applications, customer relationship management applications.

Elizabeth: So you’re out there talking to other small business owners-

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: Your clients are small business owners?

Gene: Yes. So all of my clients … we have six-hundred active ones, and I keep saying “six-hundred.” I’ve been saying it for years. It’s more. And mostly they are small and medium-sized business, usually in the Mid-Atlantic area, but quite a few elsewhere around the country. I am a small business owner. I sign paychecks every week, or at least I review a payroll, it all done-

Elizabeth: You’re not writing them-

Gene: It’s all online now. Not right now, but I pay bonuses. I have customers not pay me. I have suppliers and vendors-

Elizabeth: Which drives you crazy.

Gene: … disappoint me all the time. I have headaches, and I’ve been doing this since 1994.

Elizabeth: So you’re right in the thick of it with our listeners.

Gene: I am a small business owner. I just write a lot. I get up very early and write about all of my experiences as a business owner for a lot of other publications, including The Hartford.

Elizabeth: Yep.

Gene: But it’s all from the aspects of a small … that’s my bread and butter.

Elizabeth: Small business owner who’s out there talking to small business owners-

Gene: Correct.

Elizabeth: … all the time.

Gene: Correct.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: Correct.

Elizabeth: We’re gonna be back with our question about instituting a dress code at your small business right after a word from our sponsor.

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QUESTION: Do I Need to Formalize My Dress Code?

Elizabeth: And we’re back. Our question is from Mari H. from Mystic, Connecticut. Have you ever been to Mystic?

Gene: No. I’ve seen “Mystic Pizza.” You’ve been to Mystic, Connecticut-

Elizabeth: I love Mystic.

Gene: It’s supposed to be beautiful, right?

Elizabeth: It’s absolutely beautiful.

Gene: It’s like the movie, isn’t it, with the whole seaport thing going on-

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: … lobster and the whole nine yards?

Elizabeth: It’s really beautiful. They’ve got … it’s just such a great place for a long weekend trip. You should bring your wife there.

Gene: How do you get … you have to drive. There are no trains.

Elizabeth: You can take Amtrak.

Gene: Amtrak.

Elizabeth: Then I think you would need to rent a car. So I just actually did this with two of my friends. We went to Mystic. We went to wineries. We went apple picking.

Gene: Wow!

Elizabeth: We did … we had some great meals. I will actually put a link to some things you can do in Mystic in the show notes in case anyone’s interested.

Gene: And for any of you listeners out there that really want to get to know Elizabeth and the travels that she does, her Instagram account’s ctdaytrips is-

Elizabeth: I will put a link to my Instagram account.

Gene: I follow her on Instagram and I love the posts that you make including Mystic, or Paris that you were just posting photos from there as well-

Elizabeth: Yup. Yeah, I was just in Paris …

Gene: I look at them all. They’re great.

Elizabeth: Okay! So, we’re gonna start with Mari’s question. She’s a snack shop owner in Mystic. Okay, so just to set this up, her customers are interacting with her employees.

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: It’s not like they’re behind the counter.

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: Okay. So here’s her question:

“I really don’t care if my employees wear slacks, khakis, jeans, or sweats. Do I need to formalize my dress code? Are there reasons to do so other than discouraging inappropriate attire?”

So, I’m going to assume that she doesn’t have a uniform, obviously.

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: Unless, because she’s just focusing on pants, they do wear a t-shirt. You wear a t-shirt and then you wear whatever you want as far as pants or skirts or whatever on the bottom. So how do you feel about dress codes?

Gene: So I struggle with this in my own business, Elizabeth, because at one point in time for a few years I was making all of our people wear Marks Group shirts. We had button-down shirts-

Elizabeth: Like a Geek Squad?

Gene: … like a Geek Squad-looking shirt, and actually I stopped doing it because I didn’t like the image that it was presenting. We were coming off as the Geek Squad.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: People were like, “Hey! While you’re here can you fix my printer?” Or can you … it was not the image. Now, some companies use a uniform. Forget about dressing appropriately or not. Some companies like to use a uniform because it’s a branding thing, it’s an image thing. I mean, airlines are a perfect example. And I gotta tell you something: once you see … My wife and I were in LAX for a trip and we had a long layover and we were sitting right near the area where all of the flight attendants for all the airlines would go. It’s like sort of a locker room for them. And for like an hour we were watching these flight attendants go in and out from all over the world because it’s LAX … it was the international terminal. And it was pretty awesome. You know what I mean? The way some of them dressed, the ones from the Japanese airlines, or the ones from Middle Eastern airlines… it was pretty cool. That’s a branding thing-

Elizabeth: Yeah. That’s branding. Yeah.

Gene: It was pretty neat, and it really can make your company stand out and be very, very special. So it really depends if you want to do that. I actually think, though, that in a consumer-facing store like a merchant store, a coffee shop, a snack shop like she’s got, or a … I think it’s important to have your employees wear something that says they’re an employee of the store.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: I think that even if it’s just a badge … I just hate going … Everybody’s made the mistake where you go up to somebody shopping and you ask them for help because you think they work there-

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Because there’s all the employees dressed the same way, and you’re like, “Okay. Sorry. I feel like an idiot now.” I really think it’s important … I think for you. And that can just be a t-shirt. Again, it could be a name badge on you. It doesn’t have to be anything outlandish.

Elizabeth: So what about employees wearing sweatpants, though, or like, yoga pants, or leggings or something?

Gene: First of all, if you run a yoga store, or a sporting goods store, whatever, it might be completely appropriate-

Elizabeth: Yeah, but a snack shop owner?

Gene: Right. I think that there might be certain minimum dress codes. Now, she was just wondering if she should do it for business, putting aside people dressing down.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: The whole “dressing down” thing is absolutely an issue, but that’s something you could just tell your employees. “We would expect the minimum. That you would come dressed somewhat professionally.” No sweatpants, for example-

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: … Or no shorts. I think her question is more like, “Should I … From a branding or marketing … should I consider my people wearing uniforms?”

Elizabeth: Yes.

Gene: I like it. I like it.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think you see that if you go to any vacation beach-y area.

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: People are usually … They have that iconic-

Gene: Yeah.

Elizabeth: … Mystic snack shop shirt, and you could also sell those to your customers.

Gene: I agree. Which, by the way, another thing that annoys me … I love wearing shirts from businesses. I think it’s really funny. And the most boring, stupid … if it’s “Phil’s Auto and Body Repair” in Sausalito, California, I think that’s funny.

Elizabeth: You’d wear that?

Gene: I would wear it because I think it’s funny. I like-

Elizabeth: Like, around town, or like-

Gene: Yeah, sure. I would … random people’s businesses. I think it’s kind of funny, and I feel the same about restaurants. Sometimes I’m at a restaurant and I’ll be like … I wanna buy a … Wow! This place is really cool, and it’s in a cool area. It’d be kinda cool to have a shirt from here. But, it doesn’t … this is maybe it’s getting off-topic … But when the restaurant charges $25 to buy a t-shirt for their restaurant, I’m like, “Come on, dude. Give it to me at least at cost.” I’m not saying you have to lose money on it, you know-

Elizabeth: It’s free advertising.

Gene: It’s kinda free advertising. I’m wearing it around and it’s just like … mark it up a dollar, but sometimes I see store owners and merchants taking super-advantage of that and that kind of annoys me. But, anyway, getting back to … definitely give it to your employees and let them wear your stuff around. It’s cool! It’s cool to be walking around with that.

Elizabeth: Now, what do you wear when you go out to clients? You don’t wear your Sausolito’s-

Gene: Look. Do you guys see what I’m wearing right now? See? It’s a … No, I go dressed, and we all do, we dress professionally. It’s usually like a business shirt and business trousers.

Elizabeth: Do you have that in your-

Gene: No.

Elizabeth: You don’t?

Gene: I don’t have that as a requirement. I … everybody that works for me pretty much knows, and the reason why is because we do … personify ourselves, or position ourselves as a consulting firm. I mean, we’re technology consulting. It’s not like we’re fixing printers. We’re trying to teach people how to use their marketing and sales software much better, and the software that we sell. It is sort of a professional … Now, for years my horrible … nine years I spent at KPMG … but I love KPMG. I said it was horrible because I had to wear the full suit every day, and I hated that. I still see some financial services firms-

Elizabeth: Yeah. I worked on Wall Street. You wear a suit every day.

Gene: You wore a suit every day and occasionally I bump into a small firm, like a wealth management or investment, and they were wearing a suit, and I kind of get that. I mean, if that’s what you wanna do. I think it stinks, but maybe that’s the kind of image that you wanna show, and I get that.

Elizabeth: It’s an image thing. It’s also kind of showing respect to your clients.

Gene: It does. It does.

Elizabeth: I think it’s still in the way, though-

Gene: You show up there looking like a homeless person, landing in somebody’s office and looking terrible, whatever. I mean, you just … you’re right. It’s like an image thing; how you wanna be construed.

Elizabeth: That was mostly for the salespeople, though. The people on the trading floor were wearing khakis, button-downs, and then like a vest over … you know, just really, really casual.

Gene: So the takeaway of this conversation is, I think you should absolutely consider a uniform for your employees if it’s, first of all, more customer-facing, and if it really dovetails into the brand that you want to portray. I think it’s cool. I like that. And one final thing, I know I already said it, I have a client that’s a roofing company and they’ve got sixty, seventy people and the whole shirt … very professional. And it, I don’t know, when you have all those roofers come to your house … because I used them a few years ago for our house … You have a little bit of “Well, they seem smart and consistent.” I don’t know. It just gives an image of professionals. So it depends on your business and the branding.

Elizabeth: That’s also helpful because then your neighbors aren’t like, “Who’s breaking into their house?”

Gene: Also true! Also true! Yeah. Also true!

Elizabeth: Why are they up on ladders and going into the window?

Gene: That’s exactly right. Seems a bit odd.

Elizabeth: Alright, we’ll be right back with Gene’s Word of Brilliance.

WORD OF BRILLIANCE: Conference Calls

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re back with Gene’s Word of Brilliance. Before he gets into that, though, I do want to mention that I’m gonna link in the show notes to two articles that I think might be helpful for Mari or any other small business owner. One of them is called, “Top 10 Employee Dress Code Violations.” And then another one that we just published is called, “You Can’t Wear That: Dealing with an Employee Who Dresses Inappropriately.” So that kinda touches on, if you’re telling people, “You can’t wear sweatpants.” And you’ve got an employee who continually comes in wearing sweatpants, what to do about that. So, Gene, take it away with your Word of Brilliance.

Gene: It’s two words, okay? A lot of times-

Elizabeth: It’s alright. It’s okay.

Gene: … we say it’s the “word.” It should be word-

Elizabeth: Allowed.

Gene: … with an “s.” Conference calls. Let’s talk about conference calls for a second.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: There was a recent study that came out by a conference call provider, they’re called They surveyed a thousand of their customers and they found that businesses lose $34 billion … so a big number … around the world in lost productivity because of bad conference calls. But I think it’s a really good point. We use conference calls all the time. I lost a client once on a conference call because-

Elizabeth: No!

Gene: … we had a project going bad. This was like six years ago, seven years ago. I got on the phone, our team and their team to talk about this project and why it was going bad. It was really going bad because of the boss, and I said a few negative things about the boss on the call, and the boss was on the call. He was on the call, and did not take it well, and we got fired from the project. He was furious-

Elizabeth: Could you write about that for Small Biz Ahead? I think we’d like to hear more about that.

Gene: I could share that story with you. It stunk, but I learned my lesson on that. One of the things I learned is you really wanna make sure that you know who’s on your conference call. That’s kind of like-

Elizabeth: Yeah, but you still might… If you were the boss, you might just be, like, “I’m just gonna dial in.”

Gene: It’s true. You never are 100% certain, so you gotta be very careful when you’re on a conference call. You wanna start and end the conference calls on time because people are really … they’re busy and they have their thing, and there’s … you’ve gotta, and I know everybody’s gotta say this but I’ve gotta say this as well, for God’s sake: learn how to use the “mute” button on a … That drives everybody insane when you’re on a call. And you don’t have to use the conference calling’s mute services, you can just … your own mute on your phone. Any background noise, it’s crazy. And then you have to consider when there’s a remote employee. You gotta be engaged on a conference call. I mean, you don’t wanna just sit there and not … you gotta participate. People listen. People know that kind of stuff. Conference calls are important and can be very costly to your company if you don’t do them the right way.

Elizabeth: So your tips are: start on time.

Gene: Start on time. Try to make sure you know everybody that’s on the call, but even if you don’t be very, very careful what you say. It’s a public call. I learned that the hard way. Learn to use the “mute” button is very, very important. And, one final thing, when you have a conference call, remember you’ve got three people on it, or ten people on, or … It can turn into a free-for-all. Have an agenda-

Elizabeth: Yes.

Gene: … one person should be in charge of running the call. Come back to that person for panel discussion-

Elizabeth: That’s true for meetings, too. I wish that happened more often. You know, the other thing I hate about … and I actually love conference calls-

Gene: Sure!

Elizabeth: … because I think it cuts down on a lot of back and forth in emails-

Gene: It does.

Elizabeth: I hate when I’m the first person to dial-in and then I have to have awkward small talk-

Gene: A little chit-chat with whoever’s-

Elizabeth: It’s like, “How’s the weather in Chicago?”

Gene: Hey! That happens. I know. That’s so awkward.

Elizabeth: I’m usually like, “I’m just gonna mute myself until the call starts,” because you know everyone hates it.

Gene: Can I tell you a secret? We’re all happy that everybody mutes themselves. It’s okay. It’s cool. No one wants to be there, particularly in that situation. So if you were to say to me, “Gene, I love you, but I’m gonna mute until everybody else …” I’m like, “That’s cool with me.”

Elizabeth: I probably wouldn’t do that with you because I know you.

Gene: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So, anyway, I really like it when everyone’s like, “Okay! I’m just gonna mute until everyone’s here!” And then you can-

Gene: Agreed.

Elizabeth: … kinda collect your thoughts, and go forward.

Gene: Agreed.

Elizabeth: So, yes.

Gene: One final thing about a conference call and then we can leave the topic is I’ve learned that people that run conference calls well, they sum up the call with an email. Emails are very good to just confirm in writing what was accomplished on this call with next actions. So there should be … Meetings should be the same way, obviously. Conference calls today the same as a meeting. There’s no … and for a virtual company like mine, they are meetings, so it’s very important to follow up.

Elizabeth: Okay, we’ll be back in a couple of days with another episode about bringing a customer-centered mindset to your business’s culture.

Gene: Nice.

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