It’s time for one for the most bloodthirsty fashion battles of the summer—and no, not whether you can wear white after Labor Day: Should IT staff have a dress code?
Two companies, HP and the banking firm Barclays, have recently come under the spotlight for writing memos exhorting staff—including techies—to dress more professionally.
At Barclays, new executive chairman John McFarlane reportedly laid down the law to employees: “Principally it means no jeans, t-shirts, trainers or flip-flops,” the memo explained, while adding that “more casual dress is acceptable on a Friday.”
Except for the flip-flops. No flip-flops anytime, sorry.
The policy—which is not unusual in banking—particularly targeted the staff of the Barclaycard division, “because of their looser dress code, in line with other tech startups rather than suited bankers,” writes the Independent.
At HP, some R&D teams within the group’s Enterprise Services division, which employs 100,000 people worldwide, were reportedly sent a confidential memo earlier this summer, according to the Register UK. “The dress code memo was sent out because higher-ups believe customers visiting HP’s offices will be put off by scruffy-looking R&D engineers, we’re told,” writes Chris Williams.
What should the sartorial sysadmin wear, according to the purported memo? “Men should avoid turning up to the office in T-shirts with no collars, faded or torn jeans, shorts, baseball caps and other headwear, sportswear, and sandals and other open shoes,” Williams writes. “Women are advised not to wear short skirts, faded or torn jeans, low-cut dresses, sandals, crazy high heels, and too much jewelry.”
Not surprisingly, memos like these get some IT types hot under the collar. “I’d much rather have a bunch of sloppy dressing highly creative people who are good at solving difficult problems than a bunch of uniform dressing people incapable of actually solving anything,” commented one. “The most creative, successful tech people never, ever conform to how society or your narrow minded-ness thinks they should behave/dress/live. Accommodating those eccentric people is a competitive edge for a lot of businesses (like banks, startups & fast growing tech companies, even the government).”
IT people also pointed out that suits were impractical on days when they were crawling around on the floor (or under it) stringing cable, and that ties could be downright hazardous around equipment such as printers.
Needless to say, the majority of commenters agreed that dressing in a more businesslike fashion is appropriate for customer-facing employees. It was everyone having to dress up, in case a customer happened to come by, that disturbed people.
Though even that sentiment could have a backlash. “If I were a visitor being shown around a company, seeing a development office full of suits would give me the impression that they are subject to a regime of office politics which will constantly interfere with their productivity,” remarked one commenter.
Not to mention, the issue struck some as strange in a day and age when companies are debating whether employees need to come into the office at all, especially when competition for skilled staff is so strong.
“Companies seeking the best and brightest engineers and programmers need to be loose in the wardrobe department,” writes Barb Darrow in Fortune. “No one can imagine Google or Facebook demanding ‘smart casual’ gear, for example.”
Certainly not Google, writes Lydia Dishman in Fast Company. “The search giant’s lack of a formal dress code means employees’ clothing choices run the gamut of buttoned-up button-downs accessorized with pearl earrings to jeans and T-shirts,” she writes. “But that hasn’t hurt productivity. In fact, while some staff liken its Garage innovation space to a cross between kindergarten and a classy law firm, Google is consistently ranked as one of the top best companies to work for.”
“There’s a reason very few creative people wear suits and ties,” Branson writes. “Audacious ideas rarely spring from boardrooms and office cubicles. They come from getting out and about and experiencing life in its most inspiring settings. Creativity doesn’t wear a uniform, nor should creators.”
Ironically, in 2013 Barclays’ dress code had also made headlines—this time because it was defying traditional banking and instituting “supercasual Friday” dress. “The idea, apparently, is to make Barclays a better, cooler place to work,” John Carney wrote at the time for CNBC. “It’s one of a number of initiatives the company is taking to make employees enjoy their workplace more.”
These days, many IT staff view a dress code as a proxy. “As a software developer I would never again take a job with a dress code,” wrote one commenter. “I feel that it’s a very good barometer of management style.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that other companies such as Betabrand are using the kerfuffle as a recruiting tool, encouraging programmers to come work for them and wear anything they want. “Betabrand also sent a list of acceptable office wear via an email release,” writes Molly Brown in GeekWire. “It includes fluorescent tank tops, mesh jerseys, Flashdance sweatshirts, muscle shirts, chicken suits and body paint. Only certain clown outfits are allowed, however. They have to draw a line somewhere.”
HP executives, in fact, when the memo came to light, backpedaled as fast as their non-open-toed shoes could carry them, even developing a video to promise that its IT staff could dress just as scruffy as the best of them.
Hopefully, the publicity surrounding these misguided efforts will give pause to the next CEO who wants to make a similar change. If not, look for ways to mitigate it. Can programmers keep a spare “dress” outfit around in case of an unexpected client visit? Or at least a long-sleeved button-down collared shirt to throw over the Black Sabbath T-shirt?
Alternatively, if the company wants to insist that sysadmins dress a certain way, is the company willing to help pay for cleaning if clothes are damaged in the course of work?
And Branson is right: Lose the tie.
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