Roberta Fox remembers the outfit as if she wore it yesterday and laughs as she recalls the story. It was her last day working at a large IT outsourcing firm and she was determined to blow the dress code policy out of the water.
“”I wore purple from head to toe — nylons, purple shoes, purple suit,
fluorescent pink lipstick, big huge earrings and I spiked my hair,”” says Fox, now president of a Markham Ont.-based IT consulting firm.
It was 1996 and while it may not sound as if Fox was flouting any of the relatively relaxed “”business casual”” dress codes common in organizations today, at the time it was breaking all the rules of a staunchly conservative company.
“”There was actually a book (for employees), and it went so far as to say that, as a woman, you could only wear pants if it was the same fabric as the jacket you were wearing. And you could only wear black suits and blue suits and white shirts, and they defined the size of your earrings, defined the length of your skirt.””
Fox doesn’t want to disclose the name of the ultra conservative employer, but says on a trip to the U.S. headquarters, she was stopped at the door because she was wearing elbow-length sleeves.
“”They proposed and delivered wonderful creative solutions, but I thought, How can you expect people to do this kind of work but you weren’t allowed to take your jacket off unless you were at your desk?”” she says.
Attitudes have since relaxed in most organizations, and while companies such as Nortel are more concerned with Lehman Brothers than Brooks Brothers these days, some are starting to turn an eye back to a more formal style of dressing for clients.
In part that may be due to the changing perception of the IT employee. The person who was once locked away in a back office is now part of almost every facet of the company. The necessity for IT people to attend sales meetings is more common today and presenting a united front to the client — which includes everyone dressing on the same level — is paramount.
Add to that the conservative nature of a down-economy, which has forced people to polish appearances, says Stephen Mill, regional manager, Robert Half Technology in Toronto. “”One only needs to ride the GO train to figure that out,”” says Mill who sees a resurgence of individuals wearing suits. “”The looseness associated with IT isn’t in vogue anymore.””
In part, Mill says the change is due to a large influx of available IT candidates on the market. “”All of a sudden hiring managers have become far more discerning in what they’re looking for. Compared to two years ago, when as long as the technical requirements were there no one cared about anything else. All of a sudden if you have two candidates equal in technical skills but one has a more professional appearance, guess who’s going to get the job?””
Despite the silent tide towards ties and jackets, at Royal Bank Financial Group, the approach is to “”dress appropriately for the clientele and the circumstance, but at all times dress professional, even when casual,”” says Chris Pepper, spokesperson for RBC. “”That goes for any area in RBC whether it be systems and technology or head office. We ask employees to use good judgement for the situation and their job.””
At EDS a more formal dress code has always been in place. Employees are given an “”appearance policy”” upon hiring, outlining what is acceptable attire at the office. “”You’ll often see many of our people in suits and ties on a regular basis,”” says Dan Brennan, vice-president of HR at EDS Canada. “”But it’s not that different from what you’d find in other large IT companies.””
Brennan says he is seeing more people wearing suits. “”I’ve noticed where you would go to a meeting and find people dressed in business casual, quite often now you’ll find more formal business wear.””
When it comes to employees who don’t see clients on a regular basis, Fox says there should still be a dress code applied. “”I was with HP for seven years, and in the software divisions the idea was we stand for quality and reliability and yes, you’re an individual, but we’re proud of who we are as a company. Does it affect the work? Dockers are just as comfortable as jeans, give me a break.””
At Sun Microsystems, business casual has been the norm for a number of years, but the definition has been interpreted in many ways, says vice-president of human resources, Andy Kroen.
“”People will always test the system and what ended up happening is they tested it more and more and got away with a few subtleties and it has degenerated from its original intent,”” says Kroen. “”Based on the policy we have, a golf shirt is a no-no. However, this thing can become a slippery slope extremely quickly and there is no question that what has crept into the system are things such as golf shirts or shirts with subtle logos.””
Kroen says the pendulum has swung too far to the casual side, although he doesn’t advocate ties and wingtips.
“”I think the middle ground is where we originally tried to start from which is business casual — where basically it’s smart dress. But even in our case we have to bring it back to that level.””
But Kroen doesn’t foresee any plans to usher in a more formal dress code.
“”As long as we are a Bay-area company and as long as Scott McNealy is the CEO of this company the answer is, ‘No, we won’t.’ It’s become a bit of a cultural value system in high-tech.””
So, while investing in a good suit might not be the ticket to success, if the measure is now a combination of appearance and performance, perhaps re-thinking business dress will make everyone look twice before walking out the door each morning.