How to Get Your Company to Relax the Dress Code
The March on Selma it may not have been, but 15 analysts of Deutsche Bank (DB) decided to take a stand. The DB 15 showed up to work earlier this month wearing golf shirts after one of their colleagues was reprimanded for wearing a similar outfit. It fell short of the mandated dress code for men as stipulated on Deutsche Bank's website: "Well-ironed trousers, Well-ironed shirt, shirt sleeves preferably buttoned down."
When approached about the incident by AOL Jobs, DB had no comment. But according to a report published on cnbc.com, the analysts' "fussy boss" responsible for enforcing the dress code responded with an "irritated expression."
In an age of job insecurity, the ease with which the analysts bucked their company's dress code was in keeping with a worldwide push for loosening dress restrictions. And the reasons are far ranging, but the trend is undeniable: 15 percent of the 2,400 employers taking part in this year's CareerBuilder/Harris annual survey of employment trends said that they planned to relax their dress codes. For commentators focusing on workplace trends like dress codes, the rationale for the reassessment is always grounded in pragmatism.
"For analysts like the ones at DB, when no one [from the public] sees them, does it really matter if they have a tie on," says Amelia Forczak, the marketing manager for HR Solutions Inc., an international human-capital-management consulting firm based in Chicago. "Deutsche Bank analysts are at a professional level where they are responsible for the execution of things far more important than picking out their shirts," Forczak tells AOL Jobs. "Not trusting these professionals to make such simple decisions for themselves could hinder their engagement."
Bank's Wardrobe Malfunction
Hand-holding of high level executives was at issue in this past year's most notable dressing down of a corporate dress code. When Swiss bank UBS' new 44-page dress code went public in December, it became as hotly a pursued digital document as a WikiLeaks cable, The Wall Street Journal said at the time. The ridicule it endured over requests for workers to stay away from garlic, and for women to be vigilant about maintaining consistent hair coloring, forced the bank's hand. In January, the bank announced that it would edit down its code to a more general set of guidelines.
In marking the embarrassment at a rival bank, a spokesman for Credit Suisse pointed out the impracticality of the code, according to an AP report.
"Every Swiss bank with private or retail customers has some sort of guidelines," Marc Dosch said. "UBS has taken it to absurd lengths, but in general it's a good thing that people have some guidance."
The relaxation of modern dress code can be traced to the progressive movements of the 1960s, say several commentators studying the subject. The questioning of dress code formality has many of its roots in Sloan Wilson's 1955 novel, "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," says Erika Andersen, a writer of workplace books. In Wilson's novel, the misery of an ambitious World War II-veteran-turned-public-relations-executive in New York is symbolized by the title attire.
Since the "Mad Men" era, a variety of polls have been conducted that show companies embracing a relaxation of their dress codes. One precipitous decline in code enforcement took place in the 1990s, when Baby Boomers found themselves replacing members of the Greatest Generation in high-level positions. According to data compiled by the Society of Human Resource Management, the percentage of polled human resource professionals who said that their companies offered casual dress grew from 63 percent in 1992 to 87 percent in 2000.
Complexities of the Code
For any professionals hoping to bring about such a change in their workplace, the challenge is not a minor one. Dress codes are often viewed as the most complicated of workplace policies because they are so open to interpretation.
"It's not enough to say I want to wear jeans," says Andersen, in an interview with AOL Jobs. "You have to make a business case. The overall covenant between employee and employer has changed. The old covenant, before the 1960s, was if you show up and do your job you can work here for the rest of your life."
But now, she says, because employees are less likely to be viewed as just cogs who show up, there's more room for them to give input on matters such as dress codes.
Whether informal attire is either a bane or a boon in the workplace is a hotly contested matter, and polls have come out for both sides, but are largely grounded in subjective criteria and cut across very different fields. (In defending its 44-page code, UBS said the strict code was meant to project a sense of precision.)
But what is true is that a majority or American workers feel comfortable taking up workplace issues: 63 percent of the employees representing 2,400 organizations in HR Solutions' database say they "have an opportunity to participate in decisions made by my supervisor that affect my work environment."
Many of the commentators interviewed for this article said effective strategies in confronting the boss over dress code should relate to team-cohesion. Everyone is more at ease and will work better together if we are comfortable, the argument goes. But that shouldn't stop employees from seeking out more creative rationales, says one commentator.
"Share with your boss the latest news from Japan," says Franke James, the founder of the website, officepolitics.com, via e-mail. Now in its sixth year, Japan's "Super Cool Biz Program" aims to help the island cut down on energy consumption in the face of global warming. Just this summer, Tokyo called on the country's famously formal businessmen to trade in their suits for polo shirts, assuming that they would then have less need for air conditioning.
For James, the message was clear, and is one that can be shared with all bosses.
"Be cool, green, and thrifty," she says.
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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