Casual dress on the rise amid war for talent


West Michigan companies are putting more emphasis on production and less on attire, which is attractive to younger workers. Courtesy

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) From small outfits to large corporations, West Michigan is matching a national trend of common-sense employee dress codes.

A recent report by Chicago-based global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed employers have eased stringent dress codes nationwide in the years following Silicon Valley’s dot-com boom.

Changing dress norms aren’t just true for startups, tech companies and remote workers. They have spread to multinational entities like General Motors, whose now-CEO Mary Barra trimmed a 10-page corporate dress code down to two words, “dress appropriately,” in 2009 when she was vice president of global human resources.

Target in 2014 instituted a “dress for your day” policy. JPMorgan Chase in 2016 began allowing business casual clothes every day. Walmart in April said workers in participating stores can wear shirts of any solid color, blue jeans and jeggings instead of the usual blue polo and khakis.

For these companies, as well as businesses closer to home, changing the dress code can mean happier employees, which can lead to more productivity, less turnover and better hiring rates.

Lisa Cooper is a people strategist at Grand Rapids-based HR Collaborative, which provides human resources support and consulting for small to large companies.

She said many of her clients have adopted the “dress for your day” approach, letting employees wear jeans and a sweatshirt while doing heads-down work and asking them to dress more formally for client meetings and presentations to executives.

“Whatever it takes to get the work done,” she said.

Cooper said she has seen the trend gain traction over the past decade due to changing work patterns.

“People are starting work at 6 a.m., dropping the kids off at school, taking a longer lunch break to drop parents off at doctor appointments, then going to home to work longer hours late at night,” she said.

“Not all work happens during work hours. It’s a blend of personal, work and family life now.”

She said employers with casual attire policies attract more feedback from job seekers.

“When we highlight positions we are doing a search for on behalf of our clients, and we put things in the job posting like ‘casual work environment,’ ‘come as you are,’ and ‘we celebrate individuality,’ we get comments on it that they are glad this is a flexible employer, where, ‘It doesn’t matter what I look like on the outside as long as I do good work,’” Cooper said.

“I think it does resonate and catch people’s eyes. Also, not having to deal with the expense of dry cleaning, buying suits and getting alterations helps.”

She said a relaxed dress policy doesn’t have a noticeable impact on a company’s bottom line, so for certain industries, it just makes sense.

Exceptions to this often include higher-end professional services firms, such as legal and finance — although when Cooper worked in banking for 13 years, she was noticing that industry relax, too.

Job settings in which attire won’t change include manufacturing plants, where workers must wear closed-toed shoes, long pants, safety goggles and hearing protection; and health care and life sciences, where employees wear protective clothing to prevent exposure to diseases and harmful chemicals.

One of HR Collaborative’s clients is The C2 Group, a web design and development firm in Grand Rapids with 30 employees. Brian Beaupied, marketing communications manager, said the company has been shifting to casual for years and updated its dress code policy in January 2017 to reflect the “dress for your day” approach.

He said the policy is intended to reflect the company’s “high degree of trust” in its employees to do the right thing and reflect on the company positively.

He said the handbook distinguishes between dressing for “client-serving” work versus the casual atmosphere of the office.

“Inside our four walls, we can’t correlate wearing a necktie to creating better code,” he said.

But the handbook adds: “In client-serving matters, it’s essential we maintain a professional image.”

The rules require footwear at all times and prohibit offensive T-shirts and plunging necklines.

“We have three rules we ask our employees to follow: tell the truth, do what you say you are going to do and create rewarding work,” he said. “If it doesn’t impede that, we’re not interested in meddling too much.”

Beaupied said the firm also recognizes it’s easier to bond as a team when everyone feels comfortable.

“We have a lot of highly technical folks here. I don’t want to say nerds, but we enjoy ‘Star Wars,’” Beaupied said. “Developers have more quality conversations around someone’s T-shirt, so a casual dress code can allow employees to express themselves and allow us to learn more about each other.”

At a larger company such as Ada-based Amway, a global direct-selling giant with 8,000 employees, changing the dress code required more work.

The executive leadership team tapped a group of people to research the matter and present its findings.

Nick Abdoo is an associate software developer who was on the team. Its findings led to a new policy in 2015 called “Your Day, Dress Your Way.” It was rolled out with other flexible work initiatives, he said.

Abdoo said the policy didn’t represent a huge change in practice; it was more about downsizing from a multipage document that nobody read to a one-page policy.

“For the most part, the reason they wanted to get away from the multipage dress code is it wasn’t being followed,” he said.

The review team posted a poll on its intranet with four options: 1. I want a more relaxed dress code, 2. I want a more formal dress code, 3. I’m unaware of the dress code, or 4. I want to keep it the same.

“We got 1,035 participants, and 597 of them, or 58 percent, responded that they wanted a more relaxed dress code,” Abdoo said.

The team also conducted external benchmarking, looking at what other large companies do, including GM and Target.

Now, visitors to the headquarters will see a range of dress, from jeans and a T-shirt to blazers or suits — whatever clothing enables individuals to feel comfortable, professional and productive.

Abdoo said changes were spurred on by the executive team setting an example.

“Even when we presented, I believe it was Mark Nelson (then chief marketing officer and now global director of home care and durables marketing) who was in the meeting wearing jeans and a T-shirt,” Abdoo said.

“That is huge for employees. You can put a policy out there and say what you want about it, but if they see the executives and VPs doing it, then they know it’s OK to do it.”

Cooper said there will always be employees who don’t use common sense, so her firm shares a rule of thumb.

“We like to say, ‘If you wear it to the bar, the farm or the gym, it’s not the best attire for a casual workday.’”

She said she believes norms are changing permanently.

“I think everyone is embracing the more casual work style in terms of how they dress and where they work,” she said.

“It’s part of an overall shift from being a rigid employer to a more flexible employer. Employers are seeing they have to provide autonomy and independence to remain competitive for talent.”

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