During a recent Toronto heat wave, chief executive officer Dan Kelly went to the office attired in something he would never have worn to work even a few years ago – “a polo shirt and jacket” instead of his usual business suit, dress shirt and tie.
That’s about as casual as Mr. Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), gets when it comes to his own work garb. But, like an increasing number of executives, he believes there “has to be a strong business case” for dictating the wardrobe choices of others. The formal business dress code is falling out of fashion.
At General Motors Co., CEO Mary Barra has pared the previous 10-page dress code down to two words: Dress appropriately.
Companies such as accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers and management consulting firm Accenture have adopted a “Dress for Your Day” policy, trusting employees to decide when they can go business casual and when they should bust out The Suit. Tim Ryan, PwC’s U.S. chairman, wore jeans when he announced the more relaxed corporate dress policy in the summer of 2016.
Chartered accountant Penny Partridge, chief people officer at PwC Canada, said it did not make a lot of sense to tell professionals how to dress “when we trust them with millions of dollars in complex issues with our clients.”
The policy applies year round. “In the summer, can people take it a little bit far? Oh, yeah. We joke that sometimes people think that they are at the beach or at a nightclub, but these are sort of one-offs and we talk to people when we see that,” Ms. Partridge said in an interview. There’s no need to make it a bigger deal than it is, she said.
Accenture tries not to be too prescriptive, but offers “soft guidelines,” says Nicholas Greschner, Accenture Canada’s human-resources director. “We tested it out three summers ago and just continued on with dress for your day throughout the year.” On the whole, employees have found a good balance between expressing their personal styles, while respecting their clients’ preferences. “If you do need to wear a suit, you wear a suit, right?”
Some employers, however, still feel the need to issue the annual summer memo on what dress is considered acceptable in the warmer weather − it could be khakis, golf shirts, capri pants − and what is not. Employers should also communicate their expectations on grooming and hygiene. “During the warm summer months, body odour and other hygiene issues may become more prevalent,” U.S. firm XpertHR said in its 2018 report on summer workplace issues.
At the CFIB, Mr. Kelly gets calls from CFIB members asking whether they can require employees to cover tattoos with long-sleeved shirts, whether it is fair to prohibit men from wearing sandals in the workplace when women are allowed to do so, whether they can ban flip-flops. The old rules don’t necessarily apply, and “there is no hard and fast” on how to address some of these issues now, he said.
There is a case to be made for lightening up on the wardrobe front, Mr. Kelly said. “A lot of companies are being more energy conscious, so if you require people to wear jackets, suits and ties to work, obviously your cooling costs are going to be higher compared with environments where you are allowing people to wear short sleeves or even shorts in some locations.”
With workplace norms changing so quickly, employees, too, are seeking guidance on what, exactly, “business casual” means.
At Accenture’s Montreal office, the men’s employee resource group organized an event with Holt Renfrew to understand the trends, Mr. Greschner said in an interview. PwC employees in Toronto recently held a fashion show at Hudson’s Bay Co. “where we had our own people modelling appropriate professional business attire,” Ms. Partridge said. They had the opportunity to shop afterward, with personal style advice from The Bay experts.
According to a recent report by the Office Team division of HR firm Robert Half, piercings, visible tattoos, jeans and leggings are more acceptable at work than they were five years ago. “Employers have become less tolerant of flip-flops, shorts and tank tops.”
However, employees will not necessarily know if they have run afoul of unwritten dress codes. Senior managers are uncomfortable in the role of fashion police and only 8 per cent of 300 surveyed for the Office Team report have spoken to an employee about inappropriate attire.
We’ve launched a new weekly Careers newsletter. Sign up today.