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Dress Codes Should Match Corporate Image

December 1, 1995
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Featured Article
Casual dress has been sweeping the country—and dare we say, the world? However, lack of consistency is one of the biggest problems companies have in implementing casual dress policies. Although dress-down standards are spreading like wildfire, they often cause confusion among employees and may send mixed messages.

To help with some of the confusion around what casual dress means, some employers, such as Southfield, Michigan-based Chrysler Financial, a division of Chrysler, have held fashion shows to help employees understand they don't mean T-shirts and ripped jeans when they say "casual." In the process, employers clarify what they really do mean by relaxed dress.

Rockford, Michigan-based Hush Puppies, a division of Wolverine World Wide Inc., is one company that now allows business casual dress Monday through Thursday and "casual-casual" dress on Friday. The firm held a fashion show for employees last year to show what they hoped workers would wear—casual, but not too casual. "We're an international company and we interface with people around the world," says Maggi Mercado, vice president, design director for women's shoes at Hush Puppies. "Therefore, there's a certain level of decorum and polish that's required here." Some clothing items they don't allow: Sandals without stockings, sneakers, leggings, tights, gym wear, cutoffs and ripped jeans.

J. Randall "Randy" MacDonald, senior vice president of HR and administration for Stamford, Connecticut-based GTE, is another enthusiastic supporter of the new casual dress trend. He explained that when GTE was looking for a corporate vice president, they told their recruiter to inform candidates it's company policy to dress casually on Fridays. "I'll tell you that in each case, I came dressed casually the day of the interviews," says MacDonald. So did the interviewees. "Had those people showed up in a dress or with a tie, it wouldn't have affected me one way or the other." He says if people are professional, competent and perform well, that's what counts.

Across America, employees are complaining that with the new casual dress option, they have to go out and buy new clothes just to fit a new corporate image. They say it's especially frustrating after having carefully built a formal business wardrobe over the years. And with the trend toward reduced salaries and bonuses, employees have less disposable income with which to purchase these new clothes. So, don't expect "country-club casual" from a work force who can't afford to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue or aren't comfortable wearing a more elite style. It may end up looking like a case of class discrimination in an organization.

"Nobody's telling [employees here] they have to buy a new wardrobe," says Mercado. "We show them they don't have to go out and buy anything." The firm simply wants to show them a more relaxed way of dressing by pairing their clothing differently. And casual is an option, not a mandate. Employees may still wear their suits if they want to.

It's important that if your company decides on a casual image, executives should also embrace the practice. If the higher-ups are still dressing up, employees will get the idea that to reach the executive suite, they have to dress up, too, regardless of what the company says its standard is.

And if your company promotes a relaxed image, don't have a double standard in rating employees down if they dress casually. You actually may be getting more work out of them, regardless of how they look. Some studies show casual dress actually increases productivity and morale. And many companies are finding that to be true.

Others aren't. "Many of the studies, show wonderful benefits from [casual dress]," says Susan Morem, an image consultant in Minneapolis. "I'm not saying that's not true." But what she's seeing among her clients is that some companies that go from a one-day-a-week casual schedule, to an every day casual schedule, find the overall atmosphere is more relaxed and casual, sometimes leading to lowered standards. She cautions: Just make sure that's the kind of atmosphere you want.

Personnel Journal, November 1995, Vol. 74, No. 11, p. 54.

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