What should people wear to work these days?

'Some employers are more willing to embrace entirely casual wardrobe than others' – but dress code is always a good idea

What should people wear to work these days?

There was an episode in the well-made TV series Mad Men where an employee gets sent home from work for not dressing appropriately. In this series, set originally in the 1960s, three-piece suits were the norm along with hats, scarfs and stylish ties.

Fast forward to 2023 and our dress standards have changed dramatically. During COVID, it was typical for employees to attend Zoom/Teams meetings in a formal shirt or blouse on top, but casual wear below.

As employees are forced back into the office, the dress codes have changed and it now becomes an interesting debate between employer and employee as to what is acceptable.

A survey by recruitment company people2people revealed that post-COVID, over half (57%) of Australian workers chose a more casual working wardrobe that was much closer to their “out-of-work” outfits, with 6 in 10 now wearing jeans or shorts on a regular basis and close to half opting for sneakers rather than heels.

“Workplace attire has definitely changed in recent years, with suits and ties giving way to a more relaxed style, allowing for a little more self-expression,” Catherine Kennedy, people2people Recruitment’s managing director, NSW, said.

“Every organisation is unique, and will have its own expectations and norms, but a widely used approach is to ‘dress for your day’, and dress for your market. Consider the work you have on for the day ahead, and the company you will be in, and dress accordingly.”

Jeans and sneakers

The people2people Recruitment survey revealed:

  • Australian workers aren’t spending big on their new summer casual work wardrobes with 65% choosing to top up their existing casual wardrobe, spending around $100 on average.
  • 57% confirmed their work attire is more and more reflecting their out-of-work attire: “Dress to Impress” has given way to “Dress to Express”.
  • 6 in 10 are dressing in jeans and sneakers (or the equivalent) for work.
  • Over a quarter (29%) are sporting activewear at work, while 1 in 4 are saving it for working from home only.
  • In the last two years, 1 in 3 (66.5%) have stopped wearing suits to work.
  • Almost half (47%) confirmed they have changed the way they dress for work post-COVID.

Deciding what is acceptable will come down to both common sense and what your employer deems appropriate.

“Again, this depends on the organisation, with some employers more willing to embrace an entirely casual wardrobe than others,” Kennedy said. “It’s a good idea to look to the leaders in the organisation, as well as the clients and colleagues you work with, for your lead. If you need to question whether or not something is suitable for work, it probably isn’t.

“Anything offensive or overly revealing should be avoided, and you should consider the clients and environment you work amongst. If you are unsure on what is acceptable, and casual chat with your manager or human resources team should give you some clarity.”

A couple of years ago, a London-based receptionist was sent home from work after she refused to wear high heels. Nicola Thorp then launched a petition online which in turn prompted the UK government to conduct a review of workplace dress codes.

Legal considerations

There are limits, however, as to what you can wear, what kind of point you are trying to send or any political/religious or other message you might have garnered across your clothing.

“A dress code is a good policy for all employers, no matter what industry or work is performed, for numerous reasons,” Grace Gunn, associate – workplace relations, Holman Webb Lawyers, said.

“Dress codes can also be used as a reflection of what can be expected of the business. Sloppy attire sends a different message to neat business attire, even if it is casual.”

Gunn points out that employers need to be careful when drafting a dress code to take into consideration the different needs and beliefs of individual employees.

“When drafting and implementing dress code policies, employers should be sensitive to religious and cultural traditions and practices and be careful not to offend any of those practices via dress code requirements or treat any employees less favourably - directly or indirectly - because of their beliefs, cultures or traditions,” Gunn said.

“Any dress code policy requirements should be communicated clearly to all staff, ideally in writing and preferably with an introduction before the dress code is implemented - including an opportunity to ask questions/seek clarity.”

With the increasing demand for working from home, employers should consider having a remote work policy.

Disciplinary action

Employers also need to consider putting in disciplinary measures for people who deliberately don’t comply to dress codes. This sends a message that company policy needs to be adhered to.

“For transparency, the dress code policy should identify possible outcomes if employees do not comply with a policy. That way, if an employee does not comply with the policy and does not have a legitimate reason for not complying, the employer can refer to the outcomes identified in the policy when determining appropriate action,” said Gunn.

“If an employee has been given specific directions by the employer to comply with the dress code policy and fails to comply without a legitimate reason, disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment may be appropriate, although this will depend on the circumstances.

And one final note: “Employers should always afford employees due consideration of the reasons for non-compliance before making a decision to impose disciplinary action,” she said.

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