Behind the Scenes: How Dress Code Policy Has Relaxed Over the Years

By Cheri O'Neil on January 2, 2018 at 2:00pm

Michael Ganino remembers when he started at his accounting firm 26 years ago. Fashion formality was a requirement, which often meant three-piece suits and ties for men, and heels for women. Five years later, a memo circulated that threw the traditional dress code policy out the window.

“It was a shock,” he says. “After that, we could wear ‘business casual’ every day in the office, and when we’d go to clients, we’d dress the way they dressed. What we’ve found is that about 90 percent of our clients now are ‘business casual.’”

Dressing up for work continues to go out of style, according to a Robert Half Finance & Accounting survey of the sartorial choices made in the workplace. Even in this buttoned-up industry of accounting and finance, the professional dress code policy is decidedly casual.

Read this post: Just How Casual is the Dress Code Becoming for Accountants?

A gradual change in dress code policy

For Yvonne Dussol’s East Coast firm, the dress code evolution was a more gradual process.

“It started to ease up after we got feedback from our clients,” she says. “Many of them are in the construction industry, and they considered us overdressed when we’d go out to meet with them in a suit and tie. But it was perplexing, because we had other clients who would expect us to show up in business attire, as if they were saying, ‘Listen, we’re paying you good money, and we expect you to dress the part.’”

Eventually, her financial advisory company, Sheptoff, Reuber & Company, P.C., implemented a business casual dress code policy and started allowing polo shirts and khaki pants. But Dussol, who’s now a partner, says she’d rather see her employees set themselves apart than join the dressed-down crowd.

“I wear a jacket, dress pants and heels every day,” she says. “I might be old-fashioned or in the minority, but I feel like the profession has gone farther in the casual direction than it should. Clients may appreciate someone being dressed up more than you think. We don’t want to cheapen the role of the CPA, and if you dress the part, I think it’s better for the profession.”

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A jeans day that benefits charities

Most days, Ganino, an audit and advisory principal and director of personnel with Dworken, Hillman, LaMorte & Sterczala, P.C., in Shelton, Conn., wears a button-down shirt, Dockers pants and dress shoes to work. He keeps a blazer on the back of his office door for special occasions, such as when he interviews job candidates. But he’d be happy if he never had to wear a tie again.

“What I’ve found is that when we wear suits to meet with clients, we don’t relate to them, and it becomes a barrier to building a relationship with them. It also doesn’t allow us to build relationships with the employees we want to retain.”

His favorite day of the week is Friday, when his company participates in its Jeans for Charity program. In exchange for wearing jeans for the day, the participating employees donate $2.50 each week to a fund that’s matched by the partners and donated to local charities they’ve all voted to support. So far, they’ve raised more than $30,000.

Company's Jeans for Charity group posed with oversized check
Jeans for Charity encourages employees to donate to a fund in exchange for wearing jeans on Fridays.

“It’s a nice way to connect with meaningful programs in our community by creating a casual atmosphere, without impacting the way we do our work," Ganino says,

Impact of a multi-generational workforce

Has today’s employee-driven job market or the surge of millennials in the workplace had an impact on the changing standards of office attire? Experts say Generations Y and Z value a flexible approach to work, not unlike that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who wears the same gray T-shirt every day so he can focus his energy on more important decisions.

Ganino would agree that the younger CPAs have an impact at his firm, and the partners have been asked and are considering taking business casual down a few notches to “casual in certain circumstances.”

“We’re not talking about wearing jeans that are ripped or stained, and we’re not advocating wearing beach attire. But we want people to be comfortable when they work, and we want them to be happy. Casual attire doesn’t mean our business approach is casual.”

Dussol sees it differently. She recently read an Accounting Today article called, “Let staff decide what they should wear.”

“If I polled the staff, the older people wouldn’t feel comfortable with anything too casual, but the younger ones probably would like to wear whatever they wanted. On the other hand, I’ve seen an upswing in terms of dress at banks and in other professional settings, and the young people appear to be buying into it, with a sense of pride at being part of an organization that presents itself the best way it can for its customers. I’d like to see more of that in the accounting profession.”

Tips on revising your dress code policy

Whether you’re trying to relax your dress code and offer more flexibility to your employees, or you’d prefer to enforce stricter guidelines for office wear, it’s a good idea to have a plan before making a change. Here are three tips to get you started in creating or revising a dress code policy for your company.

1. Provide specific guidelines

While the words, “dress appropriately,” might suffice for some people, not everyone in an organization will define “appropriately” the same way. Educate employees so they have the necessary guidelines and examples of what’s appropriate and what’s too casual, without creating multiple scenarios that can create confusion.

If you choose business casual as your foundation, for example, you should define it and state your policy in writing. Business casual for men can mean business suits and dress shirts with ties as an option, or collared shirts with sports jackets or no jacket at all. For women, it can be dresses or blouses and skirts or dressy pants, or all of the above.

2. Consider your geography

Business casual is said to have been born in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1980s, but what’s appropriate in one part of the country — or in different industries — might not be in another. When you’re updating your company dress code, factor in your city or region and its customs.

3. Get buy-in from top to bottom

Job candidates and employees trying to get ahead are often advised to model their dress after the person who holds the job they want. That’s a good reason for leaders to model the appropriate dress for their teams.

Those leaders also might want to get feedback on their dress policy from their teams, who can be encouraged to put on a manager’s cap and try to see the business through the eyes of others.

When you’ve decided on the appropriate work attire to put in the personnel manual, communicate it to your staff. And if you want to change it down the road? Trends come and go, and you can always change the rules.

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