COMMENTARY
The View
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Dressing down: it’s time companies abandoned their stuffy dress codes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2017, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2017, 10:33pm

Well, well, well it seems that starchy old Goldman Sachs is planning to edge itself into the glorious world of casual dress.

A new edict from Elisha Wiesel, the bank’s chief information officer, decrees that technology and engineering staff can now adopt a ‘casual dress code’, and they can do so all the time, but need to think about getting back into their suits and black dresses for client meetings.

The liberation from stiff business attire will only be granted to around a quarter of Goldman’s staff. The move has apparently been prompted to counter competition from the big tech companies who can attract some of the brightest and the best by offering a more casual work environment and a more relaxed management style.

The rest of the workforce is still expected to turn up for work in attire that differs little from that worn by the fine folk who work as undertakers.

So this means that Goldman’s quite extensive staff roster here in Hong Kong will continue to be encased in clothing that is hardly appropriate for a semi-tropical environment. They will carry on being shrouded in business attire that probably works okay in New York for most of the year, but causes male employees to sweat and female employees to glow as they plough their way through the city’s humid maze.

Goldman staff are hardly alone in the local banking sector, where sticking to formal attire reaches right down to bank tellers and more or less everyone else working in Hong Kong’s financial industry.

Mind you, I’ve spotted some real self-imagined mavericks who daringly release the top button of their starched shirts, allowing ties to dangle at half mast, and I’ve even spotted female staff members bold enough to free themselves from the agony of high heels, which are replaced by sturdy but stylish mid-heel footwear.

Incidentally, I have a fond memory of speaking to a female executive, who told me that the thing she was looking forward to most about her retirement was the sheer joy of throwing away her entire stock of agonising high heel shoes.

Hong Kong dress codes are ridiculous and, for once, I have to complement the business sector in Singapore for a generally more relaxed set of attire norms that deem short shirtsleeves to be perfectly acceptable, although, rather bizarrely, the American influence of formal attire is more in evidence these days.

So, what does dress tell you about the working environment? Apparently, quite a lot, because companies seem rather preoccupied by this issue.

Practically every employee manual contains a section on dress code, even if it’s only a jokey new age-type mention beloved by self-consciously hip hi-tech companies who inform staff that it’s ‘cool’ to dress how you like.

However, it is more common for dressing requirements to be specified in these documents. Sometimes the rationale is perfectly sane. For example, certain trades require protective clothing, others, such as the food business, require clothing to protect food safety and then there are uniforms – a whole other world of dress code.

Once you move on from specific requirements for attire to match the demands of the trade, you enter a rather vague world where words like ‘appropriate’ and ‘suitable’ are bandied around.

Staff are told to ‘show respect’ for customers by being ‘properly attired’ and are warned that any form of ‘outlandish attire’ simply will not do.

So employees are compelled to seek out various shades of black and grey. In some ways, this works because they do not have to agonise over what they wear, they simply reach for the dull and the dark. Moreover there is a kind of equality in everyone being dressed more or less the same. But, of course, this is a fallacy, because the observant eye will quickly spot variations in the quality of the cloth, gradations in the sophistication of the cut and so on.

Basically though, this insistence on everyone wearing similar clothing is a reflection of deep conservatism and a distinct reluctance to allow employees to express their individuality. Companies worry that individualism nurtures unruly behaviour and the possibility of discordance.

They are wrong because in firms where there is no dress code, employees tend to fall into similar patterns of dress without being told to do so.

All in all, there is far too much agonising over dress codes and far too much regard paid to that horny old cliché about ‘clothes making the man’. However, weaning big organisations from their fussing over attire is hard to achieve.

My bottom line on these matters is clear: wide lapels are a no-no, alongside a very strict ban on the colour yellow, which rarely works in clothing but, frankly, what do I know?

My own attire is pretty dull.

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