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.
Enforcing dress codes
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. “Behaviourly, 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.”
“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.”
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.
Hairstyles, piercings and tattoos
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”.
Women’s fashion at work
“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.
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.
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.
Dress for success
A Sydney charity is helping women land jobs and feel better about themselves, one thread at a time.
“We’re really in the business of increasing confidence and self-esteem in women and the clothes are a tool we use to do that,” says executive director of Dress for Success Kate Wiechmann.
The registered charity helps 2000 women a year. It offers women, many of whom are long-term unemployed or recently released from prison, a one-hour session with a professional stylist who sifts through suits, shoes and accessories to find the perfect outfit, which is given to the women for free.
The women are often preparing for a job interview but can’t afford to buy work clothing, which potentially means they are missing out on jobs.
“Sixty per cent of a person’s opinion of you … is made in the first 30 seconds, and it’s based on what you’re wearing,” says Wiechmann.