It told women to don flesh coloured underwear and suggested men apply moisturiser daily. When investment bank UBS released a now-famed 44-page employee dress-code manifesto, it was internationally mocked, forcing the Swiss bank to “review what was important”.
The issue of what to wear to work – and just how far employers can go in guiding staff on appearance – can be divisive.
In Australia, hire-car company Hertz tried to make its call-centre staff – many of whom are casual, on award wages and don’t see customers – wear a suit and restrict the length of necklaces to no more than 45cm. The 2011 policy was fought by the Australian Services Union, which forced the company to back down.
Lawyer Stephen Trew, a partner in the workplace relations and safety group at Holding Redlich, says companies are well within their rights to enforce dress codes as a condition of employment.
“The only restriction is that it is a lawful and reasonable direction which applies to all workers,” he says. In practice, he says, “you have got to carry the hearts and minds of the employees, so that they understand it, buy into it and follow it”.
Branding expert Nichola Dearn agrees. She says staff need to feel good in the clothes they wear to work. “Behaviourally, how do you make employees live the brand?” she asks. “A lot of that comes from the way that you dress them. It’s to do with their self-confidence: if they feel good about it, they tend to believe in it a little bit more. [For example] if you put them in a baggy green shirt, are they really going to feel like fresh-food people?”
At Dearn’s place of work – the Sydney branch of international branding agency Landor – corporate attire raises eyebrows. “If the creative director turns up in a suit, the client asks ‘are you going to see a banker afterwards?’,” says Dearn, who is herself a creative director. The dress code is generally jeans and a T-shirt but can extend to shorts and thongs in summer.
However, when it comes to her clients, Dearn says companies are right to enforce dress codes, particularly for businesses that require a uniform. “You’re really projecting the essence of your brand through what your staff are wearing,” she says. “Sometimes its subliminal, sometimes it’s very, very obvious.”
That is the argument of RailCorp in NSW, which began cracking down on grooming late last year, ordering unshaven staff not to clock on and banning sunglasses from “resting on top of head, … hat or cap”. Banished, too, were rolled up sleeves. Critics argued that the move was a waste of money, especially for train drivers who are generally unseen by the public.
The issue of clothing crops up in branding conversations with Dearn’s clients, who are often seeking to reposition their brand. “We do say ‘have you thought about changing the way you dress,’ or allowing a bit more flexibility, or just having something that is a little bit quirky, or has a bit of a twist?’,” says Dearn.
Staff uniforms are usually widely accepted says Trew, however, appropriate business dress is a much greyer area. “Even within a single workforce, the understanding of what’s appropriate and what’s not can vary,” he says.
Hairstyles, piercings and tattoos can be problematic for many companies. In June, Air New Zealand was criticised for terminating the interview of a potential air hostess after she revealed she had a tattoo on her lower forearm. The airline argued it had a policy of staff not having visible tattoos. But the job applicant accused the airline of having double standards because the tattoo was a ta moko, a traditional Maori tattoo, similar to that which the airline uses on its own logo.
Last year, Victoria Police tightened their dress policy, banning beards and ponytails as well as jewellery and makeup, stating “how you present yourself … can have as much impact upon the professional image and reputation of the organisation as your actions”.
A group of police officers is fighting the ban, pursuing the issue through a tribunal. Less seriously, Adelaide folk-rock band The Beards – whose songs are based entirely on celebrating facial hair – were quick to issue a press release, encouraging “all members of the Victorian Police Force, and also people
everywhere, to grow beards in protest.,, We see what [Victoria Police Commissioner] Ken Lay is trying to do and we will not be held down. He may not be able to grow a beard, but we can.”
There hasn’t been a national sprouting of facial hair in response, although beards have become somewhat more on-trend in recent years.
Beards aside, there is a widespread belief that it’s women who struggle more with the issue of what to wear to work than men because they have so many fashion options, not all of them good.
“You get told what’s appropriate to wear to work but when you go to the stores, it’s different,” says Melbourne auditor and business fashion blogger Cheryl Lin, of businesschic.com.au. For example, stores typically carry lower-cut tops than many workplaces would deem appropriate.
There’s also the skirts-versus-pants dilemma, which is far from dead, according to a UK study conducted by the University of Hertfordshire. It found that women who wear skirts in the workplace are rated more highly on confidence, salary and flexibility than those who wear pant suits. The professor who co-led the research argued that the results contradicted previous studies that suggested women should dress more like men in order to succeed in business.
Faced with changing standards, fast fashion and personal preference, businesses would be better off avoiding being too prescriptive about how their employees present themselves, Trew says.
Clear visual examples of the type of look that is required are often more effective than a long list of dos and don’ts, says Trew.
Be too prescriptive and you run the risk that employees will rail against an inflexible approach, and find loopholes anyway. “There is no way you can articulate and prescribe every situation and scenario,” Trew says. “You have to present examples and an overall objective that you are looking to achieve. Keep an eagle eye on whoever has drafted the policy and make sure they haven’t gone too far and lost a bit of perspective.”
Despite reports of casual Friday disappearing and stories of the younger generation dressing more conservatively at work, another recent UK study found that only one in 10 employees wears a suit every day. Of the 2000 people surveyed by online bank First Direct, more than a third said they opted for jeans and only 18 per cent regularly wore a tie.
As for the UBS dress policy, it did have one defender. A work commentator for the Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway, wrote in her column: “Clad in my sloppy flannel pyjamas and fleece dressing gown, I’m looking again at the UBS booklet and thinking how crisp those lovely shirts look and marvelling at the wisdom of the advice.”
This article was originally written by Carolyn Boyd for the August edition of HRmonthly where the article first appeared.