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The new, unofficial dress code for corporate Australia

Margaret Zhang and Justin O’Shea at Fashion Week in Sydney last month. Christian Vierig/WireImage

The relaxing of dress codes at professional services companies, which have long been considered one the most grey and traditional sectors, isn’t a green light to swap the suit for jeans.

A formal black t-shirt might work for a startup but the services sector is still dressing up even if the trend is to drop formal rules. The latest to ditch its 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A list of acceptable clothing at PwC has been replaced by a simple message.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.

Most agree that a strict set of rules of how to present yourself at work should remain an historical oddity.

Employees should be trusted

“Telling adults what to wear to work is completely out of step with a 21st century economy, in which employees should be trusted knowledge workers,” says Anthony Mitchell, co-founder and chairman of Australian strategic leadership firm Bendelta.

“If we expect people to exercise their judgement around the huge things they can impact, we should trust them to make the right decisions about how to dress.

“If people can’t be trusted to dress appropriately, then they are likely not of sufficient calibre to be hired at all.”

But don’t get caught out by this relaxation of formalities. There are still unwritten rules and, in a way, this means it’s more difficult than when a suit, tie and smart shoes were required.

One way to look at it is that the corporate dress question has become more complex; previously there was just one choice. Now, you need to make decisions.

The way you dress really does make a difference to your career, how much you earn and how people treat you. The science on this proves it.

A suit has advantages

Men in suits are looked up to and do much better in a negotiation. Women who dress well have been found to get better service.

Psychologists say it’s all about social status.

Social rank is signaled by a variety of behaviors and visual cues.

In a study in 2014, published in the American Psychological Association journal, participants showed they were either upper class by wearing a business suit or lower class with sweat pants and plastic sandals.

Those in a suit felt good about themselves as evidenced by an increase in testosterone levels.

Just dressing well also improved their performance and they scored better in tests for negotiation.

And those who wore lower class clothing tended to defer to those with a perceived higher social status, the group with the suits.

Graduates need a hand

McGregor Dixon, the Talent Leader at EY, says a dress code isn’t a high profile part of his organisation’s agenda.

“We do have something in our policy around dress code but I can’t remember the last time we pulled that out to use,” he told Business Insider.

“The most practical way we apply anything like that is our graduate program. We have hundreds of graduates each year and when they join we have a big on-boarding program for them and as a part of that we give them some guidance on the appropriate dress standards.

“That’s really not a big list of Dos and Don’ts, it’s just to give them guidance about entering into a professional environment.”

Dixon says people make decisions for themselves.

“The main thing is that its left to common sense to make a decision on what to wear, on what is appropriate and what’s not,” he says.

“Very rarely do issues comes up where someone is wearing something inappropriate and there’s a need to pull them up on it. I can’t remember that happening but it may have and it just hasn’t come to my attention.”

Business casual

Dixon remembers when a business casual policy came in early 2000.

“I remember there was a year there where I didn’t wear a suit much,” he says.

“But now you are doing different things and you make a decision on what you will be wearing. We increasingly have more autonomy on how we work, focusing on outcomes rather than inputs.”

Business casual doesn’t mean t-shirts. It’s a shirt with a collar, clean and neat trousers and good shoes.

At Deloitte, the code is loose.

On being authentic

“We are much more concerned about our people’s ideas than what they wear,” Deloitte says. “We found clients were becoming more casual in what they were wearing.”

The only guidance to staff is to wear what they feel comfortable in and to dress to fit client expectations.

“This means our people are wearing everything from a suit, to jeans and a T-shirt, to boots and workwear when visiting a mining site,” a spokesman says.

But the key message is that what you wear always makes a difference. The clothes must fit the situation.

Research shows that clothing has a significant influence on perceptions of intelligence and credibility, according to Natalie Ferres at 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 said.

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