How breaking dress codes pays off

Katherine Phillips, Reuben Mark Professor of Organizational Character, and Silvia Bellezza, Gantcher Associate Professor of Business, both of Columbia Business School, suggest switching up your work wardrobe—if you have the political capital. By Seb Murray

Like Comment

Standing out from the crowd

Standing out, rather than fitting in, could in fact be the smarter route to success. A phrase coined in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2014, the “red sneaker effect”, revealed we confer higher status and competence on mavericks versus conformists.

So we often perceive someone wearing clothing that deviates from the norm in professional settings as having higher ability, rank and respect than colleagues who conform to dress codes.

Nonconformity must appear intentional for people to think more of us

This is because diverging from the norm signals you have autonomy and can bear the cost of nonconformity – even if it costs you your job.

“We often think that divergence from cultural norms has a ‘social cost’, or a negative rather than positive consequence,” says Silvia Bellezza, an associate professor at Columbia Business School in New York and one of the study’s authors, who argues this is sometimes not the case.

But “risk-taking signals that you have enough social capital to maintain your status even if the nonconformity backfires,” she says.

That’s why junior employees often try to blend in, adds Bellezza, since the stakes are higher. “Many successful businesspeople have flouted convention, like Apple’s Steve Jobs” who ditched his suit for a black turtleneck.

Nonconformity must appear intentional for people to think more of us though, she says. “If you wear sneakers [trainers] in a professional setting for example, people may think it’s because you can’t afford shoes.That’s not the hallmark of a successful person!”


Some of the better-known examples of rebellion, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (with his trademark hoodie and grey t-shirt) or TV anchor Jon Snow of the UK’s Channel 4 (with his funky socks and lurid ties), tend to be white men.

Even in industries with relaxed dress codes such as tech, many of the highest profile women like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook still sport more conventional, formal attire.

This may simply reflect the fact that there are far more white men in senior positions than women and minorities. Therefore, there are also more opportunities for white men to break the established rules, points out Astrid Homan, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Amsterdam, who has researched the consequences of norm-violating behaviour.

But Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia Business School who studies diversity and inclusion, points out that women and ethnic minorities working in fields traditionally dominated by white men can face a lot more pressure to conform because they already don’t fit the standard mould.

She says that you need to be comfortable in a position of privilege to opt for the red sneakers strategy. “Many women and people of colour feel they need to be established, to feel enough security to bring their full self to the table, which is something that they find harder to do because they worry about whether they will be accepted,” says Phillips. 

In banking or government, for instance, deviating from the norm could offer the richest rewards

Of course, men are criticised for informality too. Broadcaster Robert Peston, a former BBC economics editor, was slated for slouching and revealing chest hair beneath his tie-less collar in an interview with George Osborne, the former UK chancellor of the exchequer.

Quoted from "How breaking dress codes pays off," BBC News. 

Ilyssa Weingarden

Associate Director, Donor and Prospect Relations, Columbia Business School