Written By: David Winter – Corporate Finance
Wall Street culture dictates that employees should dress to reflect their levels of experience and position on the corporate ladder. In his book Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits, Kevin Roose points out how the dress code of fresh-faced recruits determines how fast they move up the ladder. For investment bankers, the custom of wearing business suits has a deeper meaning than in other areas of specialization. According to the International Finance Institute, the job entails certain social status and hierarchy, and therefore it is crucial that the dress code reflects the expectations of customers, peers and superiors.
However, under the inspiration of Silicon Valley, Wall Street is slowly adopting the “business casual” dress code. In a recently issued memo, JPMorgan Chase, the largest investment bank in the US, has allowed its employees to wear casual business attire when appropriate or based on the context of the task at hand. For instance, when an employee is expected to meet a client, they should dress to meet customer expectations. The bank leaves it at the discretion of managers to decide when an employee is not dressed appropriately for work and to summarily fire anyone who dares to come to work in a T-shirt and denim.
Other firms in and out of Wall Street have adopted a less formal dress code, with the traditional suit and tie losing its original charm. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that 62 percent of businesses in the United States allow casual dress at least once a week, while 36 percent allow it on a daily basis. The shift is evident even in the most traditional companies across all sectors. Big companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers even allow employees to wear what they want, provided it reflects what they do.
While a firm’s laxity on workplace attire may be seen as a way of keeping up with the times, it has evoked a heated debate on how the dress code affects productivity within an organization. For instance, Mike Slepian, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing”, says that casual clothing makes the employee think less abstractly and more concretely. Concrete thinking is essential for completing tasks that require attention to details such as writing code or planning a product launch. Formal dress, on the other hand, makes the employee feel more powerful and ready to tackle tasks that require high-level abstract thinking. Therefore in organizations where the workers are required to see the big picture, formal dress is more appropriate.
In another study, Dr. Karen Pine, a fashion psychologist and professor of psychology at Hertfordshire, shows a relationship between the employee’s focus and dress code. In most instances, dressing casually gives the employee a relaxed feeling hence making him or her less focused on work. This is because of the symbolic meaning that we have learned to associate with different types of clothing. In today’s society, casual clothing is usually associated with relaxation during the weekend and when put on during weekdays is likely to make employees want to relax when they should be working.
While the debate on workplace attire continues, it is evident that both casual and formal workplace attire have their advantages and disadvantages. Some studies have gone further to weigh the benefits vs disadvantages of the casual dress code at the workplace and have concluded that it has no direct effect on productivity. According to research sponsored by The Master’s College, California, there is no perfect way to determine how implementing a particular dress code at the workplace affects performance. What matters most is whether the attire matches the working environment.
For instance, if employees are regularly interacting with customers, it is advisable to choose a dress code that portrays seriousness and professionalism. However, if the type of service calls for a less formal interaction with the customer, business casual may be appropriate. For professions in the legal and banking industries, the type of relationship between the client and the service provider is based on trust, and it is therefore crucial for the worker to present him or herself in a highly professional manner.
Andrew Jensen, a business growth, efficiency and marketing consultant, recommends that employee preferences be considered when making decisions on the workplace dress code. If employees are always complaining about how strict the workplace attire is in the organization, then there is a likelihood that they will be less motivated and less productive. However, when considering the employees’ preferences, it is important to safeguard the customers’ perceptions of the company by ensuring that the dress code reflects their expectations.
When making a decision on the appropriate workplace dress code, judgment should be based on the company’s unique goals, attitudes, customer natures and employee preferences.