What (not) to wear

Sep 02 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Despite reports of the death of “dress down” days, research published this week by IRS Employment Review suggests that the days of the suit and tie really are numbered.

Most employers now want their staff dressed in 'smart casual' or 'business casual' clothes in the office, while the traditional business suit now forms the basis of dress codes in fewer than half of the country’s offices.

But while the trend towards more casual clothing continues, employers are becoming increasingly strict about what is or is not acceptable. Over the past three years, employers have become more inclined to include regulations on staff appearance in handbooks, or even directly in contracts of employment.

And with three quarters of companies saying that they operate a dress and/or appearance policy for at least some of their employees and half setting dress guidelines, what you wear at work is less likely to be a personal statement than a reflection of the image that your employer wants to present.

Almost a third of companies have regulations or guidelines in a staff handbook forming part of the employment contract. Just over a quarter rely on written guidelines that do not form part of the contract of employment. Only 12 per cent take a formal approach with employers writing regulations directly into contracts of employment.

Tourist attraction British Airways London Eye, for example, sets out its extensive dress policy in a glossy A5 booklet. This details not just what items of uniform staff should wear, but how they should wear them, and even how they should clean them. The company regards its dress and appearance code as an important part of its brand image, and even lays down rules on dental hygiene, personal grooming and make-up.

At the other end of the spectrum, UBC Media Group told IRS that its policy on hairstyles was “anything goes”, while jewellery had “never been an issue” and “nobody has had hygiene problems”.

With the exception of workers who wear a uniform at work, IRS found that formal business attire is now expected by fewer than half (44 per cent) of employers. More than half said that their dress codes were either “smart casual” or “relaxed” - relegating the formal business suit to minority status.

IRS Employment Review managing editor, Mark Crail said that the death of ‘dress down’ days in the workplace has been greatly exaggerated and that chinos and smart polo shirts are increasingly the norm at work.

"Our findings show that while flip-flops, football shorts and bare midriffs are still almost always unacceptable, only a minority now wear a business suit. But the meaning of ‘smart casual’ or ‘business casual’ can differ markedly from one workplace to the next, so there is considerable confusion about what employers expect.

"Attempts by some City banks to reimpose formal business dress have been widely reported, but they do not represented the trend in most workplaces. Indeed, employers need to be aware of dissent in the ranks; employees can rebel if they feel they are being treated unfairly, and the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, can have some bearing on the subject of dress and appearance codes.”