All these interns got sacked after they tried to change the dress code at work

Fashion blogger couple Shaun Lyle wearing a grey Topman college jacket, a black hat and sunglasses, a long white Topman tshirt, black Topman jeans, white Senso sneakers and Holly Titheridge wearing black sunglasses, a white Topshop button shirt, black Topshop denim jeans, black Alias Mae heel sandals, black Yves Saint Laurent bag in Melbourne. Christian Vierig/Getty Images

The stuffy dress codes of last century are gradually fading replaced by giving the individual more choice and responsibility over what they wear to work.

A formal black t-shirt might work for a startup and a suit is most likely to be worn by warriors of the professional services sector selling into big league companies.

Old rules, such as wearing a tie every day and black leather shoes only, are just about gone.

The latest to ditch the old dress code for its 6000 staff in Australia was PwC. A list of acceptable clothing at PwC has been replaced by a simple message. Staff should dress in a way that makes them feel great, is respectful to clients and colleagues, and safe and appropriate for the environment they are in.

But if you find yourself in a company which still insists on a grey suit and a white shirt, there are ways to deal with that situation.

If it’s a large organisation, change will be slow but keep politely chipping away at it, making suggestions for small, positive changes. At a small startup, pull together a pitch, outlining the benefits.

One way, reported by Alison Green in her blog Ask a Manager, is a certain path to losing your job.

She published a letter, unsigned, by a student who managed to jag an internship.

Unfortunately that intern didn’t like the dress code at the company.

“I was able to get a summer internship at a company that does work in the industry I want to work in after I graduate,” the intern wrote.

“Even though the division I was hired to work in doesn’t deal with clients or customers, there still was a very strict dress code.”

A petition

That intern banded together with the other interns to write a dress code proposal.

“We accompanied the proposal with a petition, signed by all of the interns (except for one who declined to sign it) and gave it to our managers to consider,” the intern said.

The proposal asked that running shoes, non leather flats, sandals and other non-dress shoes be allowed and that suits and/or blazers be dropped in favour of a more casual style.

The next day they were all called to a meeting.

“We were told to hand in our ID badges and to gather our things and leave the property ASAP,” the intern writes. They were sacked because of unprofessional behaviour.

Alison Green, the blogger, says the interns were out of line.

The rules

“You were interns there — basically guests for the summer,” she writes. “Their rules are their rules. This is like being a house guest and presenting your host with a signed petition to change their rules about cleaning up after yourself. You just don’t have the standing to do that.”

Those commenting on the blog post say that the interns were forming their own union.

“Your workplace is not a democracy,” one said. “At best, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. It might be a totalitarian regime. But either way, rounding up supporters and creating a petition is not appropriate.”

Stéphane Ibos, CEO of the Maestrano, an Australian cloud software platform for small and medium business, says change is harder to get in a large copmpany compared to an agile startup.

Shorts and thongs

“Not so much because of internal push back, but because of the image projected by the dress code of the employees of the firm,” he says.

“A banker welcoming a client in shorts and thongs is unlikely to be taken seriously.”

The dress code for most startups is: Be dressed.

“The rule of thumb consists in being always respectful of your surroundings and the people you interact with,” he says.

Research shows that clothing has influence the way people see you and goes to perceptions of intelligence and credibility, according to Natalie Ferres at Australian strategic leadership firm Bendelta. She is the author of the Workplace Trust Scale, a globally adopted framework for measuring organisational trust.

Recent work in neuroscience also shows we’re more likely to subconsciously tune into a person we view as authentic.

“Dressing in a credible way, while at the same time expressing your individual style, comfortably and confidently, can help you connect with others,” she says.

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