Off message: Dressing down for City bankers

Despite the collapse of banking systems around the world, and the daily struggle of finding ways of avoiding the BBC finance correspondent Robert ‘Pestilence’ Peston, a more pressing issue has raised its neck above the parapet – dress codes. And it could hold the answer to ensuring that City ‘whizzkids’ aren’t able to pull the wool over the nation’s eyes ever again.

It seems that the cross patch that is Nadia Eweida has once again taken British Airways (BA) to court in a bid to overturn the ruling that cleared the airline of religious discrimination when it asked her to hide or remove a crucifix while on duty at Heathrow (, 15 October).

BA understands that first appearances count, and quite reasonably you might think, it felt that wearing a particular religious symbol might be offensive to some people. Then, in a gesture of commendable reasonableness and after huge pressure, BA changed its dress code policy to allow staff to wear crucifixes.

Eweida clearly has her own agenda in challenging the court’s ruling, but was BA wrong to be so reasonable with someone so zealous about their faith? Sadly, it seems that way, and it perhaps should have adopted a zero tolerance policy, as suggested in this very column last year (‘Dress for success’, Personnel Today 20 November 2007) and stuck to its guns over what staff could and couldn’t wear while on duty.

Dressing up fetish

In the UK, we are all pre-conditioned to accept uniforms from a very young age, what with ‘representing the school at all times’ – ie, on the bus, on the street, even in your own home – to give super-fascist teachers the option of doling out the maximum punishments. And, of course, teachers used to wear uniforms too, in the ridiculous form of batman-style capes and mortar boards. They, along with the judges and members of the House of Lords, have done a sterling job in keeping the image of the clown firmly at the front of our minds. And let’s not forget the years of dressing up notched up by that queen of kitsch-with-a-BhS-twist that is Mrs Windsor herself.

However, such costumes serve a greater purpose, as BA well understands, as being immediately recognisable for what and who you are is essential if you are to deliver a top service. After all, if HRH turned up to meet the King of Spain wearing a tracksuit and a reversed baseball cap, with plenty of bling on display, she’d be laughed off the red carpet.

But as the nation rapidly convinces itself that the dark clouds of recession are actually looming and not just a figment of the fevered imaginations of City commentators and business groups, there is a real danger that uniforms – along with training budgets – could be victims of the great swathe of cutbacks currently swooshing their way around the world.

But if we are to put a stop to the City shenanigans, the BA accessory war highlights just how important uniforms can be – and how HR can help.

Uniform signals

BA staff have a uniform that ‘tells’ customers they are people you can talk to who will endeavour to sort out your travel-related problem.

Likewise, shop staff tend to get kitted out in some variation of the confusing seat fabric designs used on London tube trains, reassuringly highlighting the fact that these customer service operatives are all equally confused – there’s no real point in asking where the thin-cut Silver Shred is as they will always point you in the direction of the baby food.

Nurses, doctors, ambulance crews and paramedics all carry out their slightly more essential duties kitted out in easily recognisable outfits the Armed Forces handily signal their whereabouts to enemy attackers by wearing co-ordinated outfits and even suicide bombers tend to give away their intentions with a risqué combo of multi-pocketed, all-weather garb, complete with rucksack and protruding wires.

In the hospitality sector, chefs have a limited menu of items that they can wear, yet they have seemingly cornered the market in side-buttoning shirts and chequerboard trousers waiters, meanwhile, have kept sales of waistcoats buoyant while purchases of three-piece suits have stagnated and train and bus crews sport inoffensive ‘smart-casual’ grey and white, or navy and white, ensembles that have a reassuring air of the blue collar about them.

In short, all these functions have uniforms that mark out their territory.

Notorious bankers

The notorious bankers, of course, used to all wear bowler hats, and right up until the 1980s you could go to London Bridge any day of the week and witness the swarms of City gents (with compulsory umbrellas) snaking their way across the bridge to the modern-day dark satanic mills.

Sadly, in the past 20 years or so, the City executives have all but dispensed with their black suits and bowlers, adopting an altogether more anonymous approach to smart dressing. And this was the clue that Mr Peston and his comrades should have spotted – for, when they are up to no good, far from sporting a stripey black-and-white top, Zorro eye mask and handy bag with ‘swag’ written on the side to advertise their nefarious intentions, the average crook goes out of their way to blend in with the crowd. And this seems to have been the modus operandi of the City’s finest.

So if the government really is serious about restricting the activities of the nation’s bankers and City suits, its very first step should be to enlist the help of HR and impose some draconian dress rules for those slippery slickers who somehow manage to avoid the chop.

However, while not advocating that the miscreants be tarred and feathered or forced to wear sackcloth and ashes – which would both be appropriate – at the very least the City dudes (or should that be duds?) should be made to wear the traditional dunce cap of old. Then on dress-down Friday, they should be forced to don their birthday suits in recognition of their naked contempt for the rest of society.

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