Think of an executive, a lawyer, an accountant, and other professionals who provide an image of high status associated with their occupations. If I were to ask you to give me a description of what their outer appearance would be like in today’s environment, could you? You might be surprised to discover your mental picture differs quite a bit from the current style of today’s workplace. Despite the constant changes in the corporate and professional dress code that take place every year, I still perceive the professional businessman such as a senior executive to be clothed from head to toe in the traditional formal attire. The images of dark colored two-piece suits, matching ties, mid-length skirts, and shiny leather shoe and heels still lingers from my upbringing; labels that will forever convey to me a sense of intelligence, education, and professionalism in a highly regarded field.
There is this growing trend in the corporate industries that has brought up many controversial debates. The trend of "casualization" has spread through corporate America like wildfire. Dressing down in the corporate workplace is not just for Fridays anymore nor is it solely reserved for Internet start-ups alone. The trend may have begun at Silicon Vall ey during the sixties, with computer companies allowing their employees to dress more comfortably to promote productivity and creativity. It has now come to transform many of today’s Law firms, brokerage houses, and other corporate companies from all across America.
There are an abundance of respectable and influential arguments both for and against casual dress codes in the workplace. My feelings on this issue are quite mixed at this current moment. In order to better understand this topic let us first define this term "casual dress." Casual dress generally means that employees can ditch their uncomfortable and expensive business suits, skirts and blazers or mid-length dresses, black shiny shoes or heels for more comfortable clothing such as khakis, polo shirts, casual shoes, and sweaters. Jeans, sneakers, spandex, and revealing clothing in the professional work environment are still highly prohibited and shunned.
There are many who argue that this trend is here to stay. Why would this trend have reached so far if its benefits were not recognized? According to a survey done last year by the SHRM, The Society of Human Resource Management, eighty-seven percent of human resource professionals polled commented that their current companies allow casual dress option at least one day a week, even though only sixty-three percent of these respondents said that their companies offered casual dress codes. Forty-two percent of employers have in place a dress policy that allows everyday casual dress. The statistics are overwhelming; close to nine out of every ten companies are converted or are converting from tradition to permit their employees to dress casual at the workplace.
Many of these companies use casual dress codes and dress down atmospheres to attract new and talented employees. "We cannot attract the best minds with a formal dress code," said Philip J. Purcell, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Inc. They are also using this trend as a device to retain valued employees. Mitchell Sonkin of Cadwalader said, "This is a reflection of the new way in which business is done. People are no longer impressed by how you dress. [Casual clothes] breaks down barriers and make for happier and more productive people in the workplace."
Casual dress in the workplace is said to promote a friendlier, more relax, and bonding atmosphere for the employees. "Because people have so little time, they need to connect at a personal level quicker. This casualization is more efficient: Information needs to be passes on more quickly, so the formalities fall by the wayside." said Sherry Maysonave, author of Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success. Most companies you hear about in the States that are profoundly known for their family-like environments such as Microsoft are continuously inserting into their employment advertisements images of teams of casually dress people. So, there may be some truth to be found in the relationship between comfort and bonding between employees. It can be quite normal to assume that one will have an easier time getting acquainted with his/her fellow coworkers in an environment that is less formal.
Flexibility and innovativeness are two more factors why many companies have implemented dress down policies. It sends the employees the message that the company doesn’t want to control them or favor affluent workers. In SHRM’s 1996 benefit survey, HR managers cited that employee morale and productivity have increased due to their new dress codes. Many employees also sing the praise of casual comfortable clothing at work. Many are ecstatic about lowering expenses for work clothes and dry-cleaning. In a survey done by USA Today, sixty-four percent of respondents said they are more efficient at work because of their casual dress codes. Some companies tried to re-implement formal dress codes, but some efforts backfired. According to Jackson Lewis Law Firm’s study, forty-four percent of HR executives polled noticed more tardiness and absenteeism after reinstating their formal dress policies.
Though there maybe many convincing statements for "casualization", others would quarrel otherwise and fight to return American back to wearing black suits and heels. Dressing in khakis and a sweater doesn’t fit our known traditional perception of professional men and women in America’s corporate world and probably not in many other nations. Does casual dress give impressions to others that a lawyer or an accountant in casual clothing is not as capable of accomplishing their job than one that is traditionally dressed? In my opinion, I also view this to bear some truth. If I was to seek a lawyer for judicial advice and observed that that individual is clothed in a pair of khakis and a sweater, it can cause me to rethink about my visit and maybe switch to another lawyer for advice. " People think you’re smarter when you’re well dressed, and they think you come from a high socioeconomic class," said Judith Rasband of the Conselle Institute of Image Management. In my eyes, some professionals should uphold some traditional attire at the work place. This may be due to my traditional upbringing and maybe too much television. But if this trend continues to expand, the future appearance of professional men and women may well be very different from what most of us are accustomed to now.
People seem to interpret things differently. The same may go with the interpretation of casual clothing. ABCnews.com reports, "Stodgy employees think casual means taking off your suit jacket. Others show up for work in weekend wear - hiking boots, sandals, tank tops, shorts, wet hairs." How casual is too casual when it comes to work clothes? There should still be a line drawn to maintain a firm’s image and reputation. Formally written casual dress codes are effective to prevent humiliation, but only sixty-three percent out of the eighty-seven percent of respondents of SHRM’s survey who were allowed dress down days, had casual dress codes in their companies. Surely, shorts and tee shirts are not appropriate for a mutual fund manager and stockbroker while at work.
Should managers and subordinates dress alike? Does it affect the formal relationship and power between them? Many managers do feel that if they dress casual and bear a resemblance to their subordinates, they would not receive the same respect. I can understand where these managers are coming from. Problems could arise due to manager-subordinate relationship clashes caused partly because of employee’s comfort around a superior than does not look like one. Managers do not want their people to get too comfortable and forget they are working and the managers are responsible. "When management dresses the same as [other employees] it blurs the line in terms of legal liability, said Paul Siegel from Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzer and Krupman. Flirtatious behavior in the work environment was reported to have risen thirty percent due to casual dress, according to Jackson Lewis Law Firm’s survey. Some companies are applying more stern rules on employee behaviors to prevent unnecessary sexual harassment charges.
Research done by Jeffrey Magee of five hundred companies show that there is a linkage between casual dress and decline of ethics, morality, and productivity in the workplace. There are even some instances that indicate a rise in "gutter language". Paul Siegel also agrees with Magee, "the American workplace is losing a symbolic vocabulary by abolishing dress etiquette." Casual dress in the modern workplace may have additional dangers other than the ones stated. In industries such as law, lawyers are sometimes called to emergency court hearing. If a lawyer not knowingly dressed down that particular day a hearing was needed, he or she would be inappropriately dressed for the court and an embarrassment to his or her firm. Reasons such as these are most probably why the other thirteen percent of companies have not yielded to employee pressures of "casualization".
With both counteracting groups having such strong evidences to support there claims, aligning with any particular side is very difficult. I still have a great deal of mix feelings about this issue. I strongly agree that dress down atmosphere encourages bonding and relaxation, but the fact is I do not know if anyone can say for sure that casual dress codes are proven devices for improving productivity, creativity, or innovativeness. I feel that a less formal environment can be less stressful to the employees. There still must be enough convincing factors on casual dress in the workplace for this trend to continue expanding. I understand how many companies today may use this trend to their advantage in attracting and retaining employees. Let truth be told, I much would rather work in corporate that has a less formal environment, if all other factors such as salary and benefits are constant. I do feel this trend will continue expanding. The negative factors and evidence seen are also compelling, but I guess as saying states, "to win the war, you must sacrifice some soldiers." With this trend, there come both good and bad possibilities. In a situation like this, one cannot assume that the negative effects are all you get. There will be some "bad apples in every basket." I truly believe that "it is not the clothes that make the person," it’s something within themselves. Maybe a partial casual dress code in the workplace would be more effective. Meaning, only allowing lower-level employees to enjoy the comforts of casual dress and keeping higher-level employees in tradition attire. This may help diffuse some manager-subordinate relationship conflicts. Overall, casual dress codes would be beneficial just as long as there are limitations. Companies and employees must know the appropriate style for the appropriate occasion.
The trend seems to be only flourishing in America. I do not believe foreign countries such as Japan, Holland, and Singapore can socially accept such changes at the present moment. As one of my fellow housemates, Hari Arifianto told me, professionalism in the work environment at Indonesia is a must. One can be disgracing his or her company by dress down or inappropriate. The concept itself is not even heard of by most Indonesians. In the economic sense, America has always had profound influences on other foreign countries. If this trend is there to stay and settle as the norm in America, I believe that eventually many countries will follow. Many years of professional tradition and corporate culture are extremely hard to overcome. Only time can tell if this trend is local to the States. Will Americans eventually be the global trendsetters for casual dress work environment?
The obvious consumers of this trend are the working professionals of America. Some employees find financial relief in the implementation of the casual dress code. From experience, I can say they save quite a bit of money not buying suits, which can be extremely expensive with additional savings on dry cleaning costs. Time is also saved, because dry cleaning in America is usually done professionally at a shopping center or a shopping mall. I believe that the trend is most prominent in lower-level employees of corporate companies. Higher-level executives are having more problems conforming to this trend. They feel that they may lose control and power over their subordinates. I feel statuses among higher-level professionals are strongly treasured. So, in a sense, to dress casual like their subordinates mean losing some of their professional identity.
This trend is called "casualization" and it definitely has its foothold in the states. There are many people who support casualization and other who oppose it. Many studies and surveys have been conducted on this trend and most point towards a continuous expansion. I guess we will have to just sit back and see.
*Some references were used from another article emphasizing on the same topic. I felt the information used were relevant to this paper.
Davan Maharaj; "More Firms Giving Workers a Dress-down Day They Like",
The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, California; April 30, 2000.