Keeping Up Appearances

'Business casual' can be an expression of culture, an outburst of creativity - or plain old dressing down. Today's workers test the limits.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

How do you dress for career success? The formula, if there is one, seems to keep changing.

Throughout the 1990s, in corporations and small businesses nationwide, suits gradually gave way to khakis and sports jackets. In both the public and private sectors, "dress-down Fridays" spawned summer-long - or year-round - "business casual" dress codes.

Many businesses still cling to more formal dress codes. But with e-commerce, new media, and IT companies leading the way, many others have abandoned dress codes altogether, luring recruits to work environments that allow for personal expression.

Recommended: School dress code: Top ten offenses

The result: a patchwork of appearance standards that has created an "appearance diversity" never before seen in the American workplace. The trend toward relaxed standards - particularly in creative and technical professions - appears to be growing. But just how relaxed have these standards become, and what happens next at the busy intersection of worker rights and employer control?

At the busy new-media company Latino.com, employees openly display tattoos and assorted clothing styles. The five-year-old company, based in San Francisco and New York, has no written dress code.

"People are evaluated in terms of the work they do and their job performance," says Lavonne Luquis, cofounder and chief executive officer, "Not by their appearance."

Beyond Internet start-ups, whose come-as-you-are approach has been successful in attracting and retaining a generation of smart, suit-phobic workers, relaxed dress and hairstyle standards also crop up in other sectors.

Banking and finance firms have generally been among the most hesitant to loosen up, but Charles Schwab, a leading financial-services company, instituted a "business casual" dress code two years ago. While shorts, T-shirts, halter tops, and leather pants wouldn't be allowed at Schwab, explains Sarah Bulgatz, director of corporate communications, clean denim jeans are now acceptable.

Even law firms, traditionally bastions of conservative dress, are experiencing significant changes. Cynthia Wyatt, director of career services at New York Law School, has seen "business casual" implemented at such leading law firms as Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, established in 1792. The move toward less stringent dress codes, says Ms. Wyatt, both bolsters recruitment of young associates and meets the expectations of casually dressed e-commerce clients.

The broad change in company attire can be attributed to numerous factors, the most obvious being dotcoms' influence, says Patrick Lennahan, director of the Career Center at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

But Mr. Lennahan adds that a competitive job market has also made companies more willing to snap up nontraditional-appearing employees.

"Employers who might not have been as tolerant in the past are sometimes finding they need to be in order to get the people they want," he says.

In fact, sometimes it may be all about not compromising.

Not forcing a 'look'

Steve Rosa is president and chief creative officer of Advertising Ventures Inc. His Providence, R.I.-based advertising and marketing firm works with many Fortune 500 companies whose dress codes still tend toward starched shirts.

Initially, the employees of Advertising Ventures went out of their way to prove themselves to their corporate clients. "We tried to look and act the part," says Mr. Rosa. "Later, we had a revelation that it made better business sense to be ourselves."

Over the 11 years that his company has been in business, Rosa has hired people with pierced tongues, tattoos, and a young man who dyed his hair blue shortly after accepting the job. Rosa himself has an ankle tattoo.

"I need to surround myself with exceptionally talented employees," says Rosa. "People are paying us for our ideas, and not our dress code."

Some studies have pointed to concern about increases in absenteeism and tardiness coinciding with the institution of casual-dress policies, as well as an apparent rise in flirtatious behavior.

And Marjorie Brody, president of Brody Communications, a Jenkintown, Pa.-based business-communication-skills firm, says the business world still links professional dress to success. Firms feel it is likely to make some clients and consumers feel more comfortable, she says.

Other experts cite a corporate reaction. "Some [companies] are starting to pull in the reins a bit, feeling that the adage 'give them an inch and they'll take a mile' applies to some employees," says Ray Hilgert, a professor at Washington University's Olin School of Business. He adds that a middle-ground approach seems to work best for most companies.

Rosa admits that the smaller size of his business makes it easier for him to keep tabs on what's happening in the workplace. "Here, if you're not pulling your weight for whatever reason, someone else is going to know."

That sentiment is echoed by many other owners of small companies.

"In our office, we're very goal-driven," says Ms. Luquis, the CEO of Latino.com. "People have to generate results and deliver their work, or otherwise they're not with the company for very long."

The boss can still dictate

Workplace experts say job-seekers and employees alike should keep in mind that almost nothing has changed with regard to the right of an employer to dictate dress codes, grooming standards, uniforms, and even hair length.

Like other retailers, the Seattle-based gourmet coffee giant, Starbucks, uses a dress code to encourage a "clean, neat, and professional appearance" at its cafes, according to Cindy Hoots, public-affairs coordinator, while still allowing employees to dress "casually and comfortably." Hair can be worn long, but must be clean and tied back.

"Companies can have ... grooming or appearance policies," says Reginald Welch, communications director at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington. "Or they can have a policy where they don't care what you wear as long as you're covered."

The matter gets more contentious from a legal point of view, says Mr. Welch, when an employer has a dress code that is applied unevenly and unfairly.

And nowhere has this issue been more hotly debated than with regard to the right of African-American workers to wear their hair in braids, cornrows, or dreadlocks.

A police officer's dreadlocks

In a recent case, Antoine Chambers, a six-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, was suspended in July when he refused to cut off his short dreadlocks in response to a new policy forbidding personnel from wearing locked hair, braids, or cornrows.

Mr. Chambers presented a letter from a religious scholar and local councilman explaining the significance of locked hair within the Rastafarian faith, but the police department did not feel the explanation was satisfactory.

Chambers was subsequently stripped of his police powers. The Baltimore Police Department has argued that the department has a right to establish and enforce a dress code for its officers.

Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, says his office has called on the Baltimore Police Department to reinstate Officer Chambers, and to rescind its rules prohibiting these hairstyles.

Mr. Sullivan notes Chambers had offered to conceal his hair under his hat - and also that white male police officers in the same division are allowed to wear ponytails. Chambers has a discrimination complaint pending with the EEOC.

Cases involving African-American employees being disciplined or fired for these kinds of hairstyles are not unusual, says Noliwe Rooks, associate director of African-American Studies at Princeton University and author of "Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women."

Ms. Rooks points out that the growing tolerance for unique workplace appearances has been slower to catch on in service-oriented industries, where supervisors often want employees to convey uniformity.

"It still is not the norm to see large numbers of African Americans with their hair in braids or 'naturals' or dreads," says Rooks. "People equate a certain kind of militancy with [these] kinds of hairstyles, whether that has any basis in reality or not."

Chandra Prasad, the editor at large for the popular career site Vault.com, stresses that sweeping changes in workplace demographics, including the growing number of ethnic minority and immigrant workers, may soon have employers making decisions on attire like Indian saris.

"Things are getting a little bit better," says Ms. Prasad of the willingness of companies to hire people with ethnic attire or hairstyles, "but the change is very slow, particularly in more traditional industries."

Letting workers use judgement

Headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., Silicon Graphics Inc., has no written dress code and openly celebrates the cultures represented in the company's workforce, says Deborah Dagit, SGI's director of learning, communications, and diversity.

Everything from saris to tattoos, and braids to body piercings, have found their way into the company mix.

If employees ask about a dress code, SGI tells people to look at their work schedules. Meeting with outside clients might require more "formal" attire, at least by Silicon Valley standards. Spending the day on a project would mean an employee could dress in a way that's comfortable and that reflects their personality, says Ms. Dagit.

"It's up to the person's discretion. In trusting that, we haven't been burned."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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