Exploring the Boundaries and Limitations of Corporate Dressing
During my time working at PwC (Big 4 accounting firm) 2010-2017, I noticed the evolution of corporate dressing over my seven years. It was too interesting not to share the evolution of office attire and its correlation to changing office environments and working practices. Enjoy!
Working in the accounting and finance profession, there are limited ways to express ones’ creativity and individuality. Which is why I chose my corporate attire as an avenue to express my personality and build my own brand as I continue to climb the corporate ladder. This is especially important that one builds and represents one's own distinct brand and not only proudly represent the firms brand - because when you leave the firm, you need to have an identity.
In 2015, I started my Instagram blog upon the realisation that when peering across the office it was a depressing "sea of black suits". This resonated with my colleagues and my Instagram followers and I noticed other women sharing their outfits with me online, asking for outfit advice as well as the shift in my office's attitude towards their daily corporate attire from traditional suiting, to more colour and versatile fashion. The photos I was posting on Instagram quickly resonated with my followers and my blog and those similar became a source of inspiration.
It should be noted that the official dress policy was still traditional:
This policy applied Monday to Friday without any allowance for “Casual Friday”. Contrastingly when meeting clients or working at a client site/office myself on Fridays, my colleagues would also be questioned by the client for not wearing casual attire, especially if it was expected or allowed at that client (n.b. these clients varied in industries including Government, Finance, Mining, Retail). Management would comment and express concerns that they thought it was a show of superiority and disrespect coming to work dressed in suits on a Friday when everyone else underdressed. This was obviously not our intention rather a case of contrasting policies. Accordingly, in future where “Casual Friday” was client policy I informally encouraged my teams to “dress down” if we were working from their office, out of respect to the client and to enhance client working relationships.
In 2014, I do remember an instance where a female partner in my office explicitly banned men from wearing jumpers/cardigans over their white shirts and RM Williams boots, especially if they were meeting with a client that day. This was not a firm policy, but was rolled out locally for my extensive team to comply with. Keeping in mind, in my opinion the men in our office always looked respectable, freshly cut hair, well groomed, polished shoes, ironed and tailored business suits or similar attire. These men are the type of men you'd want to take home to meet your parents. This local policy was not well received by the team and upset the group dynamics by creating unnecessary tension between upper and lower level management. Especially when I remember this female partner in particular was wearing leggings and tunics on regular occasions, contradicting the dress policy. Needless to say, enforcement didn't last and the team stayed true to their style and pushed the boundaries even further, almost like a small act of rebellion.
It is also important to understand that during this time, the team also transitioned to a fully activity based working style, with a relaxed working and collaborative space. In particular, this included: video conference spaces, electronic whiteboards, games room spaces, open kitchen, open TV presentation rooms, that were full of colour, plants and the newest technology. The team organically adapted to this space, which I believe also influenced a natural relaxation of the dress code and promoted outfit creativity that was consistent with the workspace.
It wasn't long after this that a national Flexible Working Arrangements Policy was introduced allowing employees to work flexibly from home, office or client as well relaxing the working hours, scrapping the notion of standard 9-5 office hours.
Then in 2016, the prescriptive dress policy was completely abolished by Sue Horlin, PWC Human Capital Leader. “We trust our people to use their judgement and common sense, and we firmly believe this small but symbolic gesture will help people be more comfortable, more confident and therefore deliver fantastic service to our clients.” (Read more)
Although the other Big 4 firms (EY, Deloitte, KPMG) haven't officially published whether or not they have relaxed their strict dress policy, they have openly discussed their support for more flexible working arrangements. In my opinion, flexible working arrangements will organically influence future office attire whether it is officially adopted and allowed. If not now, then definitely soon, when the next generation of leaders become partners, and the old school traditions and ideologies are retired along with the stereotypical "older, white, Caucasian male" partners. This theory and change is no doubt applicable and able to be extrapolated to the wider finance, banking and legal industries as well.
Regardless of whether a company has a strict or relaxed dress policy, it is really important to bring it back to basics, which is my advice for all graduates looking for a job. As someone who was responsible for recruitment and graduate recruitment, it doesn't matter how amazing your resume may be, if at the end of the day; I don't feel comfortable putting you in front of a client then you won't successfully receive an offer of employment. To determine whether someone is right for the job comes down to a person’s presentation which includes their outfit, but is also a more holistic assessment, encompassing whether the candidate is well groomed, good hygiene, polite, articulate, engaged, sincere, enthusiastic and eager to learn.
I remember an instance where a candidate as part of the vacation employment program, was not offered a graduate position although her work did not drastically differ from her peers. Her inability to perceive what was appropriate workplace attire (she often wore midriff tops), unkempt hair and personal hygiene were ultimately deciding factors. This all supports my theory that your corporate attire is crucial to your personal brand, as someone who presents 'well put together' immediately instils confidence and higher levels of competence.
Striking that balance is key when building a successful corporate wardrobe, but for those starting their professional careers who do not have any prior experience for dressing in the corporate world then the traditional corporate dress guidelines are a good place to start. As your experience and knowledge grows, you will start to identify your own individual brand, find your style and understand what is appropriate in a corporate scenario, which is when you can adapt your wardrobe.
Finally, there is correlation between relaxed dress codes and employee brand marketing, which is touted as one of the most powerful forms of marketing and attracting a lot of attention/buzz lately within the industry. Essentially this is where employees are the marketers for a business/firm by promoting a positive work environment - because an employer who treats their employees well is accretive to their brand.
Essentially this strategy is very low cost and authentic as it relies on organic word of mouth conversations with friends and family and/or sharing their experience on social media. This can include perks like a relaxed dress codes, and extend to free after work events, collaborative and fun office spaces, friends and family discounts, company merchandise or charity days.
If you are reading this and finding it difficult to translate this advice into what to actually wear, they say pictures speak louder than words, so check out my Instagram for some fun and fashionable examples.
(N.b. these are my opinions and do not represent the opinions of PwC or staff. The contents of this blog is property of Emily Plummer (c) )