Like most law firms, Jolley, Urga, Wirth, Woodbury & Standish is a buttoned-down kind of place. Male attorneys are expected to wear coats and ties, Fridays are not casual, and employees who greet visitors in the reception area must remove jewelry worn in body piercings.
Meanwhile, at Zappos.com, the Henderson-based Internet fashion retailer, T-shirts, tennies and tats are the rule rather than the exception, and employees can wear just about anything they’d like to work, although they are expected to exercise good judgment.
Two successful companies, two approaches to handling the perpetually contentious issue of what employees should — and shouldn’t — wear while they’re on the clock.
Whether the actual tipping point is T-shirts, tattoos or flip-flops, the tug-of-war between personal sartorial freedom and professional workplace accountability probably began with the first shots of the Industrial Revolution. And, in the decades since, it’s a tension that has ebbed and flowed along with changes in society at large.
Attorney Patrick Hicks, founding partner of the Las Vegas office of Littler Mendelson, has practiced law for nearly 25 years. “In the last 10 years, I’ve had more of these issues than in my first 15 years of practice,” he says.
Why? In part because the specifics of company dress codes have moved beyond clothing to also include body adornments, piercings and tattoos.
It also may have something to do with the natural tendency of young people, and young workers, to push the boundaries of what already exists in a company. Bill Spohrer, director of administration for Jolley, Urga, Wirth, Woodbury & Standish, notes that “the work force that’s coming up now (is) almost like a reprise of when I came up in the ’60s. People are a little more individualistic in their thinking, and feeling like, ‘Hey, I don’t need to wear a shirt and tie to be good at my job.’ So you have to take that into account.”
Why do businesses have dress codes at all? For reasons related, not surprisingly, to business.
“All companies have a particular image they want to project, and companies have a right to project that image as long as it’s consistent with social norms,” Hicks says.
If, for instance, a law firm wants its attorneys to project a professional, solid image by wearing suits and ties “knowing that their customers and clients prefer that … they are certainly free to institute a policy that requires that,” Hicks says.
In fact, from a legal standpoint, employers enjoy “a good deal of leeway” in requiring what employees may or may not wear on the job, Hicks says. What becomes potentially problematic, he continues, are prohibitions that can be seen to, for example, discriminate on the basis of sex or infringe on an employee’s religious practice.
But, even beyond issues of law, wearing appropriate dress in the workplace “goes to the heart of etiquette, that it matters what people around you think,” says Daniel Post Senning, moderator of the Emily Post Institute’s Etiquette Daily blog (etiquettedaily.com). “You might be doing your job doing data entry just fine. But what if clients show up? What if the CEO shows up? What perception is created for them when people wear flip-flops?”
What’s particularly sticky about company dress policies is that they reflect social norms, and social norms change as often as society does. Sandi Milton, vice president of public relations for Nevada State Bank, recalls that, a mere 20 years ago, women who worked in the banking industry — and, probably, many other professions — were required to wear skirts and hosiery.
In addition, dress policies reflect “corporate culture,” and a corporate culture — those spoken and, often, unspoken norms to which employees are expected to adhere — vary from company to company and even from region to region.
Generally speaking, for example, “things are much looser on the West Coast than East Coast, especially in the New York area, where traditional dress is still a big part of corporate culture,” Senning says.
At Jolley, Urga, Wirth, Woodbury & Standish, the corporate culture is strictly professional. But even while attorneys are expected to dress “as if they were going to court,” Spohrer says, some employees — including those who have no direct contact with the public — are permitted to dress less formally.
At Nevada State Bank, “we always try to (appear) professional,” Milton says, a vital consideration because of the trust — and money — customers place with bankers.
Nevada State Bank’s dress guidelines prohibit “revealing or suggestive clothing,” Milton says, and “you can’t be unkempt, and that type of thing. But, for the most part, you have to have a professional appearance.”
Employees have no problem with that, Milton adds. “I think that is something most people in banking are used to.”
At Zappos.com, in contrast, the dress code is “extremely casual (and) relaxed,” says Rebecca Ratner, the company’s human resources director, although employees are asked to use “good judgment” in their choice of attire.
The comparatively loose dress code is designed, in part, to allow employees to, as Rather puts it, “be who they are.” But, she adds, one side benefit is that “we get to know people better.
“If someone wears a Grateful Dead T-shirt, they can make a connection with somebody through that. Or if a person has 25 different pairs of Converses and wears a different color each day, that’s a point to talk about and a way to connect. So that is one of the good things.”
Ratner concedes that getting used to Zappos.com’s liberal dress code can take time. When Ratner joined the company after spending 10 years in the casino industry, “I had to go shopping for jeans and flip-flops,” she admits. “I didn’t have enough to get me through the week.”
Yet, Ratner can recall only two cases in which she has had to discuss workplace attire with employees. In both cases, she says, the issue was “more about ill-fitting clothing” than inappropriate clothing.
Clothing that was too tight? Ratner laughs, and answers, “Probably.”
In both cases, Ratner continues, the “easy fix” was to give the employees Zappos T-shirts to wear for the rest of the day. And, in both cases, Ratner says, the employees were extremely apologetic.
“They really value having so much freedom, it disappointed them and hurt them that they might put (that) at risk.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at email@example.com or 702-383-0280.