Some would assume that working in the corporate world demands traditional business attire — for men a suit or at least slacks, jacket and tie; for women no sleeveless tops, dresses and skirts past mid-thigh with pantyhose or dress pants and a blouse.
According to the global outplacement and career transitioning firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., the tide may be changing in a more comfortable direction.
The company says that things once considered a workplace taboo, if not outright banned, such as tattoos, piercings or unnatural hair colors are now having to be overlooked if employers aim to keep and/or attract talent.
Also contributing to the relaxed dress code is the current tight labor market.
“For years, companies required stringent dress codes for both men and women due to cultural expectations,” the firm’s vice president, Andrew Challenger, said in a news release. “A well-dressed workforce was considered key to running a respectable business. But with the start-up culture and the work-from-home trend, some companies have started to relax the rules.”
According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, relaxed work dress has been inspired by the Silicon Valley dot.com boom that began in the 1980s, as both the nature of the technology industry and its long work hours caused companies to reject norms and allow more comfortable dress.
Challenger says the change was made in part to attract younger people to the tech industry, but soon more and more companies caught on to what those firms were doing.
“By the mid-1990s, almost three quarters of companies instituted some kind of casual dress day (think: Casual Friday), according to a 1996 article from Bloomberg,” he added.
Two decades after that Bloomberg article was published, JPMorgan Chase decided to allow business casual dress for its employees every day, a significant shift for the banking giant.
Todd Ritterbusch, managing director and market executive for JPMorgan Chase in Tarrant County, said the company modernized its approach to workplace dress “by considering the type of job each employee is doing. Our overall dress code is business casual, but we relax those standards for non-client-facing jobs.”
Ritterbusch added that in the two years since the policy change some client-facing bankers have moved to wearing business casual most days, a dramatic change from the days of always wearing suits or dresses.
“There are still situations where clients prefer or expect their bankers to wear a suit and tie, and we respect that expectation and our bankers dress accordingly,” he said. “It’s important to keep in mind we have 3,500 employees in Tarrant County, making us a major employer here. In our Fort Worth Corporate Center, employees have a casual dress code that is extremely popular with our employees. For example our technology and operations employees are now wearing jeans, and they love it.”
Patty Revis, Unity One Credit Union director of human resources and volunteer marketing director for the HR professionals association Fort Worth HR, also noted the change.
“As companies are moving to a more relaxed dress code culture. one theme seems to be coming to the forefront and that is the concept of ‘dress for the day.’ Professionals at every level should know what their day holds and dress accordingly,” Revis explained. “There are new realities in today’s workforce. On both sides. Customers are becoming more accustomed to talking to a CPA or an attorney who may not have their suit coat on or wearing pantyhose with a skirt. Trust is still achieved without the tie.”
And as other companies saw that work did not stop and customers did not disappear with the absence of suits and ties, Goldman Sachs wasn’t far behind Chase, announcing in July 2017 that tech employees could “exercise judgment in determining when to adapt to business attire,” the online site Tearsheet reported.
Tearsheet, which reports on modernization in finance and retail, added that if these employees wouldn’t be face-to-face with clients, it was a safe assumption that suits weren’t expected and they could instead go for jeans and, according to a Goldman engineer, even a hoodie.
In fact, just two months ago, Walmart announced that employees at 100 of its stores could wear blue jean jeggings, cargo pants, skorts, capris, chinos and slacks — as long as they are solid blue, black or khaki.
The retail giant is testing the relaxed dress and said it could be expanded if results are positive. Walmart is also allowing employees to wear dresses and skirts, when previously most were limited to khaki-colored or black denim pants, according to Bloomberg. And they can now wear any solid-colored shirt, not just blue or white.
But relaxed dress codes aren’t without HR headaches. Revis said the biggest change when moving from business to business casual is in what the dress code relaxation means for men compared with women.
“This issue predominantly surrounds females in the workforce. For men it’s super easy. Generally, neutral colored slacks with a belt and collared shirt. No tie or suit coat required. That’s easy,” she said. “But with females’ taste, opinions and fashion choices it can be all over the map, not to mention the generational influences. Employers must be crystal clear on the expectations and what’s acceptable. I still say, ‘if your grandmother would approve, then usually it’s ok to wear to work.’ I am learning the hard way that might not be the best benchmark anymore.”
“No one wants to be the fashion police. Trust me, no one,” she added. It’s a difficult part of any manager’s job to tell an employee his or her clothing at work is inappropriate. So, Revis says, the best thing an employee can do is know what the employer’s expectations are and follow them.
But it isn’t all cautionary tales and finger-wagging, Challenger said there have been noticeable positives to switching to a more relaxed corporate dress, and Ritterbusch agrees.
“It certainly improves morale to allow people to be more comfortable at work, especially with our hot summers,” Ritterbusch said. “Employees also get to be a little more expressive with their own tastes in fashion. Additionally, employees enjoy saving money because casual clothes are less expensive and typically don’t need to be dry cleaned.”
He reminds other businesses, though, that dress codes remain just one piece of the business environment.
“We provide employees a comprehensive set of benefits choices to meet different employee needs and lifestyles,” he said. “Creating a winning team and a vibrant culture takes a lot of work and a lot of listening. But there is no substitute for it. Teams succeed because they work well together, are disciplined and always keep the needs of our clients at the forefront of all they do.”
Tips for Employees
Global outplacement and career transitioning firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas has some tips and tricks for employees on workplace dress:
Dress the part: Dress as if you will meet with your CEO every day. While office culture dictates whether you dress casually or more formally, you should always be in well-fitting, clean clothing, appropriate for your position and duties.
Play copycat: If you are unsure how you should dress at work, look at your co-workers. Every culture is different, but dressing as casually or formally as your colleagues is generally a good practice.
Tattoos: Tattoos are common in most workplaces and they rarely cost a job-seeker a position. That said, it is wise to cover any tattoos that are large, distracting or potentially offensive when at work or before an interview.
Develop a “work uniform:” Once espoused by Steve Jobs and other tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg, a new workplace trend is wearing the same thing every day, reportedly to free up brain power for other things. While this might seem stifling to some workers, developing a rotation for key items to wear to work could have benefits. Not only will you always look appropriate, but it will make your mornings much easier.
Tips for Employers
Director of Human Resources for Unity One Credit Union Patty Revis has some suggestions for employers considering switching from a business to business casual dress code:
Expectations: Set firm expectations with your staff.
Consequences: Make sure your policy is clear on what the dress code is and what happens to violators, especially to an employee who disregards the dress code after having been warned multiple times. For example, the employee may be sent home (nonexempt employees go off the clock and are unpaid) to change clothes. Or the HR department might keep a stash of appropriate clothes to change into if the employee can’t go home.
Examples: Use a chart of photos as examples including colors that are NOT acceptable. Leave it posted in a common area.
Prevention: Don’t let things get out of hand or let anything slide. It is far harder to rein employees back in.
Discretion: If something is unacceptable then say so, but not publicly. Bring the employee into your office for the discussion.