Gone are the days of the suit and tie – now more employers are implementing a casual dress code. But there are pitfalls as well as pleasures in slipping into something more comfortable
For Brian Baxter, consultant with organisation and business psychologists Kiddy & Partners, all the fun has gone out of wearing casual clothes in the workplace. “The trouble is that the whole ritual of dressing down has become just a ritual,” he says. “It used to bring with it a sense of freedom, or anarchy – of cocking a snook at the system – but now the system has taken it over.”
Baxter reckons dressing down originated in Silicon Valley, where a computer company found they needed the entire workforce to help ship their products at the end of each week. Every Friday employees would turn up to work suitably dressed and the whole organisation – from managing director downwards – would muck in.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Umist, disagrees, stating that the idea came from Wall Street where employers wanted to find a way of de-stressing their dealers before the weekend started.
A third theory is put forward by Chris Lane, a senior consultant with Sanders & Sidney. Lane reckons the first company to dress down was Levi Strauss, which introduced the initiative on a Friday as a way of combating absenteeism. Making work a more relaxed and enjoyable experience reduced the number of people who opted for the long weekend.
Whatever its genesis it is clear from the above examples that dressing down can be a useful tool for HR management – breaking down barriers between workers and making the workplace a more relaxed and comfortable place to be. It can impact on the way people work together. “If you see a group of people dressed casually in a meeting the mood can be very different,” explains Brian Baxter. “They’re more friendly with each other and there’s more humour in evidence.”
Tesco has had a dressing down policy among office staff for the past five years. The initiative began with dress-down Fridays but gradually extended as more departments adopted the practise on every working day. Keith Luxon, group HR policy manager, says, “In the areas where it is used the more relaxed style has been positive in terms of morale and general output.”
Yet the changes in working relationships which can be triggered by a revised dress code will only have a positive effect if it suits the working style of the managers and employees whom it covers. Removing what may be seen as a token of authority could create problems for managers who need to impose discipline.
As Dawn Holberton of organisational psychologists Craig Gregg & Russell says, “Some people need formal dress in order to feel in control at work. If they’re wearing a suit they feel they have authority and are more confident. If they’re casually dressed they may not feel the part.”
While some managers and employees may experience difficulties adapting to a new dress code, Holberton believes the action of senior management is crucial to setting standards: “Regardless of policy, individuals tend to dress to match the more senior staff in an organisation,” she explains. “These people need to give an example. If they don’t dress down nobody will, or alternatively the dressed-down employees will feel uncomfortable. They may even feel persecuted or discriminated against because of their dress sense.”
Clearly, emergency, medical, catering and some retail operations are not able to dress down since their uniform plays an important part in identification.
Luxon explains that Tesco was slow to adopt the dress-down policy in its offices because of concerns that 95 per cent of the company’s workforce – those on the shop floor – would not receive similar treatment. But, organisations where employees only occasionally meet clients may find dressing down policies further complicated: should specific guidelines be introduced to govern client meetings, or will employees have to bring a suit to work with them, ready in case the circumstances arise where it is necessary to be formally dressed?
“Any company which has to define what is appropriate casual dress to its workforce is unlikely to be ready to introduce dressing down,” says Holberton.
What employers must realise is that in handing clothing control to employees, they are giving each individual responsibility for that area of their working life. Employees should know from their own experience when it is appropriate to wear a suit and when they can dress down. As Greenspan points out, “If you don’t trust your employees to dress appropriately for your clients, how can you trust them to deliver the right service?”
Holberton cites one law firm which solved the problem of dressing for clients by including the concept of “Bumpability” in its dress code policy. Bumpability means that employees are allowed to dress casually but should always be smart enough so that if they were to accidentally bump into one of their clients, the client wouldn’t be shocked by their attire.
“Appropriateness is the key word for our dressing down policy,” says Siobhan Lee, a consultant at Arthur Andersen. While one source claims that having introduced its dressing down initiative Andersen had to issue a memo to prevent employees dressing down too far, Lee maintains the company has never written any guidelines on the subject, handing the responsibility for individual appearance entirely to each employee.
“We’ve deliberately avoided issuing guidelines,” says Luxon. “The more you get into ‘you can wear this but you can’t wear that’ the more you find you’ve created a dress code. It may not be a suit and tie, but it amounts to the same thing.”
As with Andersen, Tesco’s policy simply states that employees should be dressed “appropriately” and any transgression of this is dealt with by the employee’s line manager.
But if detailed dress policies simply herald the introduction of another uniform, so too can the reaction of the workforce itself. Anecdotal instances of a casual dress code being officially reversed are few and far between, but instances where employees either take no notice and carry on wearing formal business clothing, or try out the casual look for a while, and then return to the suit are more common.
Alternatively, casual wear can still create barriers within an office, with designer labels supporting the hierarchy or simply providing a sense of identity among the workforce. A number of consultants interviewed claimed to be able to recognise an Andersen employee from their chinos, roll neck shirts and Gap clothing. “In general people want to wear what other people wear,” says Angela Barron policy advisor at the IPD. “Most of us don’t want to stand out. We have a natural desire to conform.”
Ultimately the success or failure of a dressing down initiative depends upon the reason why the measure was introduced in the first place. Greenspan pours scorn on the belief that a relaxed dress code can create a new working atmosphere within a company: “A casual dress code can send some positive messages,” he says. “But it is certainly not sufficient to have significant impact on employees by itself.”
When Arthur Andersen introduced its dressing down policy in January this year it was alongside a raft of other measures designed to give each individual the resources and opportunities they needed to work effectively. Dawn Holberton suggests this was a response to staff attrition to more attractive financial and e-business organisations and certainly Lee describes the measures as an important part of the company’s campaign in the “talent war”.
Alongside the revised clothing rules, each Andersen employee has been issued with a mobile phone, a palm-top computer and a second phone line at home enabling flexible working arrangements. The company has also opened its MBA programme to all employees, rather than managers and partners only, and now offers six months’ sabbatical leave for every three years served.
“Andersen has given each employee the responsibility to find the best way they can work for their clients and to create a comfortable environment for themselves,” explains Lee. “We have become a more open organisation and there are fewer barriers to the senior people. The casual dress code is a facilitator of this new culture.”
Whether Andersen’s approach delivers results in terms of lower attrition rates or increased productivity remains to be seen, but it is clear how far-reaching the impact of a change in dress code can be compared with the occasional novelty value of a dress-down Friday. What also becomes clear is that no significant policy should be introduced without first carrying out a thorough consultation with the workforce. “You shouldn’t introduce anything without asking the employees,” says Prof Cary Cooper. “The process should be to consult with everyone and then get to some agreement about what standard of casual clothing will be tolerated. Rough guidelines do help people, but they should always be kept rough.”
While dressing down in the workplace is viewed positively by HR managers and consultants alike, there is still one area where formal wear appears to reign supreme: the job interview.
HR managers would still be surprised to find job recruits arriving for a first interview dressed down. Luxon notes that the situation may be different for second interviews – by which time the recruit will have more knowledge of the company and can dress appropriately – or among entrepreneurial companies. Given this, those taking the interviews should always dress up for the occasion since it will be disconcerting for a suited applicant to face an interviewing panel dressed in jeans and casual shirts.
Ironically, while it may be HR that introduces dressing down initiatives it appears this department is often the least willing to hang up the jacket. “In a number of organisations HR are still regarded as second-class citizens,” explains Baxter. “As a result they are one of the last areas to dress down.”
Dos & Don’ts dressing down
• Consider the business area in which you are operating. What are the expectations of your sector in terms of corporate image and what your customers expect of you? Entrepreneurial organisations such as the new e-businesses may not employ a suit or tie-wearing person from day one. But this approach could mean they experience problems later when seeking credibility from other sectors such as banks and financiers.
• Consider the various functions of your company or organisation. How often do employees face clients or customers? Are there internal office-based functions where a casual dress code would be unseen by customers and be perfectly acceptable to those workers?
• Consult widely on employees’ attitudes towards dress code.
• Experiment with dressing down days. Introduce dress down Fridays and take attitude surveys from all employees.
• Encourage staff to dress up as well as dress down, according to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Customers facing clients should reflect their customers through the clothes they wear.
• Create a complex dress code which stipulates precisely the kind of clothing required for different circumstances. Employees will not be happy if they have to go out and buy a complete new wardrobe in order to go to work.
• Expect all employees to react favourably to the measures. Some employees may need their change of appearance between work and home life to keep the two separate. Breaking down this barrier may leave some employees uneasy as work and life become blurred.
• Force employees to wear casual clothes. Leave the option open for each individual to decide whether to wear a suit, a uniform or smart casuals. In this way each individual is responsible for their own appearance and will feel more comfortable whatever they select.
• Allow senior management to use clothing as a mark of authority if the rest of the workforce is dressing down.
• Expect a relaxed dress code to create a new working environment on its own. If you intend to change the way employees relate to each other make sure other initiatives – communications, workshops and training – are used to support the new culture. A relaxed dress code is likely to create more anxiety and discomfort among employees if it is simply imposed upon the current hierarchy.