What not to wear: should your workplace have a dress code?

Dress code? What dress code? It’s not uncommon to see staff wear jeans, chinos and tailored shorts every day of the week, no matter the industry.

Should your workplace have a dress code? Is it even possible to codify dress standards these days?

In 2009, the economic downturn claimed a fashion victim: casual Friday. Smart suits and crisp shirts made a comeback, as workers ditched their jeans in a bid to impress the boss and keep their job. 

Almost a decade on and dress standards have changed dramatically. It’s not uncommon to see staff wear jeans, chinos and tailored shorts every day of the week, no matter the industry. 

The influx of start-ups and fintechs may have ushered in some of the changes. After all, if you see Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in a suit, it’s either his wedding day or he’s about to testify before a congressional committee. He’s most certainly not at work. 

MARS Recruitment Sydney general manager Michelle Rubinstein says a relaxed approach to office attire is one way many companies are attracting and retaining talent. 

“People are looking for more than just remuneration these days,” Rubinstein says. “They want flexible working and relaxed dress, certainly on Fridays.”

The move by many organisations towards flexible working arrangements has also fuelled a relaxed dress code. Health insurer Medibank’s FlexBetter approach, for example, enables employees to not only work hours that suit them, but take time out of the office to volunteer, engage in sports and leisure activities, and to dress that way throughout the entire day – providing it is appropriate. 

What to wear when your dress code is 'relaxed'

While many offices have swapped formal attire and dress shoes for more comfortable wear, when does keeping it simple become sloppy? As workplace dress standards trend downward, a challenge for many organisations is to retain some sort of standard benchmark. Casual attire can mean stockings and heels for one person, and ripped jeans and a singlet to another. 

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“A relaxed dress code is great but because it’s so difficult to put some boundaries around what is and isn’t acceptable, it makes it difficult to have a standard policy in place,” Rubinstein says. 

Recruitment firm Robert Half director Andrew Brushfield agrees. He says companies should not assume “casual dress” will be interpreted the same way by everyone. 

“You don’t need to be the fashion police, but it’s important to provide people with guidelines about showing too much skin, or wearing thongs and shorts, for example,” Brushfield says, adding that many workplaces need to explicitly caution people against such choices. 

“A classic example is back in the day when you’d have dress-down or casual days and people showing up in ripped tracksuit pants. For a lot of environments that’s not right, so I think it is important to stipulate [what is acceptable].” 

Lycra and other fashion victims 

Indeed, one former manager at a major bank says he was forced to send some staff home because they dressed in midriff tops, very short skirts or skimpy shorts. 

“It was an uncomfortable conversation but the way they were dressed was inappropriate [for work].” 

A manager at a large engineering firm says people cycling to work has led to sweat-soaked clothes and issues with body odour in the office. One employee refused to change out of his tight-fitting lycra all day, “and no one wants to see that”. 

Another staffer refused to use deodorant for cultural reasons and the odour was not appreciated by other staff. A preference for open-toe shoes and sleeveless attire among some cultures also clashed with the company’s dress expectations. 

Clearly, dress codes can be a sensitive issue when people have cultural preferences. The Australian Human Rights Commission has rules regarding clothing and discrimination in the workplace and particularly references jewellery and tattoos worn for religious or ethnic reasons. 

"It very much depends on the type of role you're in, the type of work you're doing and the type of people you're doing business with." Michelle Rubinstein, MARS Recruitment

The aforementioned issue with odour was never completely resolved, as it would have required the company to enforce a rule requiring the use of deodorant, something management was reluctant to do.

Even so, Michael Page Digital manager Martyn Massop says it is important for companies to implement a dress code and for employees to adhere to “normal attire [for that organisation]. It’s very industry-specific.” 

Great expectations: personalisation and individuality come into play 

However, even industry expectations are changing. While the finance and accounting sectors have traditionally favoured more formal dress, Brushfield says views have changed over the last 15 years. 

“Whereas chinos and a shirt were fine on casual Friday, now jeans and a shirt are. Fewer workplaces these days [insist] on ties.” 

He says office fashion has become such a talking point that people bring it up in job interviews. 

“It’s appropriate to ask questions about dress code,” he says. “It’s not the cornerstone of a company’s culture by any means, but it’s certainly reflective of it.” 

Rubinstein says what constitutes appropriate work dress has been blurred in an age where individuality is seen as an important attribute. 

“There’s a big move towards people being allowed to show more identity at work,” she says. 

“Dressing down allows [staff] more freedom and individuality and, when you look at all the different mobile phone covers you can get and being able to personalise everything in your life, I think being able to put a stamp on how you do and don’t come to work every day is part of that as well.” 

However, it remains important to dress in a way that is conducive to productivity and unlikely to be offensive. 

“It very much depends on the type of role you’re in, the type of work you’re doing and the type of people you’re doing business with,” Rubinstein says. 

“If my guys are meeting someone at a top-tier law firm or investment bank, they will dress according to the audience, but if someone recruiting for a digital agency were to turn up in a suit, they’d look like an absolute monkey.”

Although differing views on what is acceptable present a dilemma for managers seeking to set dress standards in the workplace, boundaries and guidelines need to be considered in any casual dress policy.

Read next: Open-plan offices: how to make them work


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