The Roasting Pan Effect: How Abolishing Dress Codes Might Very Well Kickstart a Work Revolution

Have you heard this story? A woman is preparing a roast for the oven, and she cuts off both ends of the meat. Her friend asks: “Why are you cutting off the ends?” She replies that her mother always did it. As it turns out, her mother chopped off the ends of the meat because it was too large for the roasting pan.

I love this story (I featured it in The Work Revolution). It is a cautionary tale that reminds us to ask the question Why? for everything we don’t understand. Recently, it has also inspired me to think about the fine line between Tradition and Blindness. What is the difference between the two, and where does one end and the other begin?

According to Wikipedia: “A tradition is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past.” Traditions can be beautiful things, rooting us to values that are important. They can also be functional in the sense of not reinventing the wheel to deal with life events or situations. They simply provide the script that we can follow for weddings, funerals, even government.

It’s not hard to see, however, how tradition can lead to blindness. What once worked in a given situation and time might cease to work in the future. If we aren’t clear about the specific reasons for traditions and the context in which they were created, we are at risk for clinging to dysfunctional traditions that waste our time and give us grief.

Which is exactly what has happened in the world of work. Our world has shifted dramatically in the last 20 years to create a global workforce that is always on. It is more important now than ever for organizations to be agile and fluid, to adapt rapidly to the swiftly developing currents swirling around us. But if organizations can’t even let go of outdated, unnecessary, and stifling traditions, such as dress codes*, how can they possibly adapt to the much more important shifts in their competitive environments?

In The Work Revolution, I challenge every individual to think about what they can do now, in any given work environment, to make changes that make them happier and more engaged with their work. I suggest in the book that tackling the dress code might not be the best place to start. But actually, I am officially reversing course on this. I am now hereby tackling the institution of dress codes and using this as my battle cry in The Work Revolution. I am convinced this is the best place to start. Why?

  • It’s an easy change that any organization can make today. It requires no reorganization or process redesigns. No hiring or firing. One email from your CEO or President does the trick: “You may all hereby and forever more wear the clothes you choose to wear to work. Business casual is dead. Be comfortable, and be who you are.”
  • It costs $0 to make this change, officially making it the cheapest employee perk on the planet.
  • It is so very nice to get up in the morning and not worry about whether what you feel like wearing fits into the dress code policy; the psychological impact is huge. Multiply the impact by the number of individuals in your organization, and you can see how this one change can make a huge difference every single day.
  • This is a very visible change. Visible changes can create momentum for questioning all of the organizational traditions that might not be working anymore. One small change can lead to much bigger changes.

I work in an organization that has no dress code (and I will never go to work for one that does). We wear what we want. And this is also the case at Google and Facebook and every other savvy startup on the planet. It’s the least we can do to create some sense of humanity at work. And it’s a tangible reminder to ask Why? for everything we are doing in work, lest we fall prey to Blindness.

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* The exception to the dress code rule is, of course, that some organizations have legitimate requirements for dress rooted in actual business requirements. Bankers do not fall into this category. Doctors and nurses do.

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