As office clothing becomes more casual, stylists are being called in to help bosses write new dress codes. Alice Peacock reports
When an accountancy firm manager spotted an employee standing at the office photocopier in Ugg boots, she knew it was time to implement a dress code.
The boss called stylist Jackie O'Fee, telling her, "I need you to get in here and talk to my people."
"She was really concerned - like 'what on earth?'," O'Fee says.
"I mean, Ugg boots are slippers".
O'Fee, who runs Signature Style's Auckland office, says she has seen a revival of dress codes for office workers.
"In general we're seeing a far more relaxed, far less corporate kind of look.
"But a lot of organisations are really struggling with people who are taking the mickey, or pushing the boundaries much further than they'd like them to.
"The only way to address it is to actually write a fairly specific dress code." Following the Ugg boot incident, O'Fee helped write a new dress code for the accounting firm, with visuals illustrating 'dos' (proper footwear) and 'don'ts' (ripped jeans and anything you can see "up, through or down").
Giving employees parameters to work within helps avoid misinterpretation, but O'Fee sometimes hears about push-back, particularly from younger, female workers.
Workers in their early to mid-20s coming out of university and into office jobs sometimes interpret a smart-casual dress code in a way many managers deem inappropriate, she says.
"A lot of these younger girls are dressing in things that are too short and too tight.
"That's a problem for a lot of managers, and a difficult conversation for them to be having, because how do you tell a female subordinate that she is dressing in something that is too tight and distracting? Girls get all funny about that - but it is a reality."
O'Fee says a formal, written dress code policy can help, allowing employers to back themself legally should they come up against any issues.
Sometimes, it's the youngest and newest employees who influence managers to introduce a dress code.
Colin Henderson, managing audit partner at RSM, says most of his team are younger workers and they were in part the motivation for change. He works in the company's Newmarket office which has a separate dress code from the wider, international firm.
When employee Andrew Dickson, fresh out of university, walked through the front doors for the first day of his auditing job, the 20-year-old had felt a little out of place.
"I went in wearing suit pants, obviously a nice pair of business shoes and a dress shirt," Dickson says.
"But when I went in that first day I was the only one not wearing a suit jacket."
He says he felt underdressed and uncomfortable. While he'd been shopping for a few work outfits, he didn't own a full suit - nor did he want to.
"I thought, 'Oh no, I'm going to get looked at - I'm not abiding by the dress policy'."
Two years on, Dickson continues to shun the jacket, but he's not alone.
Following a successful three-month trial, RSM has implemented a new dress code, shifting from business smart to business casual.
A document outlining the new policy dictates employees must still adhere to the original code when they're out of the office meeting clients. But inside, polos and chinos are fine, as are jeans, if they're the type that won't offend your great aunt at a family function. Shorts and short skirts are still a no-go, as are trainers, flip-flops, sandals and hiking boots. The policy also includes pointers around hygiene and personal presentation.
Dickson says he believes in dressing to look good. But he doesn't think day-to-day work should entail dressing in anything that makes you uncomfortable.
"I think some people in the working environment are scared that if we dress casually we're going to start acting more casually too.
"But mentally, the way I dress is only going to make me feel more comfortable - it's not going to make me less productive."
Plus, Dickson reckons he was hired for his skill and work ethic - not his wardrobe.
He believes certain aspects of the new policy are indicative of the generation who wrote it. One rule dictates men must not wear shoes without socks.
"But a lot of our generation like the whole 'no sock' look. I don't see a problem with that - I mean if you're wearing a nice pair of pants, a nice clean cut shirt and a suitable pair of shoes, then I don't see not wearing socks, as looking any less casual than someone with socks. Perhaps they think we're showing too much skin?"
The airline industry has been historically strict on employees' appearances, though Air New Zealand is reviewing grooming standards for its flight attendants.
A spokeswoman says the company is considering ditching, or relaxing, makeup requirements. This follows Virgin Atlantic's announcement that female flight attendants will no longer have to wear makeup.
Air New Zealand's recruitment website tells prospective flight attendants to "invest in a long-lasting foundation that doesn't dry out your skin", and "use a good primer to ensure your foundation stays in place".
The airline has repeatedly come under fire for its stance on tattoos. Earlier this year, Whangārei man Sydney Heremaia was turned down for a customer service role because his tā moko did not "not comply with uniform standards for roles wearing the Koru uniform".
A Jetstar spokesman says its grooming policy also requires female cabin crew to wear makeup while in uniform. There are no plans to change the policy.
Dress code policies have to be consistent with New Zealand laws - including the Employment Relations Act 2000, the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, and the Human Rights Act 1993.
A Human Rights Commission spokesman says the Human Rights Act sets out prohibited grounds of discrimination. Appearance or hairstyle requirements specific to a religion or ethnicity, such as a turban or certain piercings, are protected by the act. Under the act, a person of Māori descent should not be denied employment, entry to premises or declined service because their visibly wear tā moko.
The HRC can step in when employees are concerned but if it's not resolved, they can take their complaint to the independent Human Rights Review Tribunal.
"Generally, the commission encourages employers to consult with employees when setting and updating work attire policies," the spokesman says.
The Health and Safety at Work Act says a workplace must establish requirements around "personal protective equipment" - including workwear.
"In some circumstances certain hairstyles, jewellery or clothing may constitute a workplace risk and fall within the provisions of the Act," a spokesman says.
The Employment Relations Act sets out the general legal framework for employment arrangements and contracts.
In the justice industry, a formal dress code has long been expected.
The Law Society advises a dark suit or skirt with a white shirt or blouse, a tie for men, black shoes and dark socks or stockings.
While there is no official dress code for media or spectators, the Ministry of Justice website asks that journalists, camera operators, sound technicians and photographers attend court "suitably and professionally dressed".
A NZ Newswire journalist wearing gold, sparkly pants was ordered out of the media bench at Wellington's High Court while covering the 2012 Scott Guy trial.
Laura McQuillan's get-up caused an online storm, with Twitter users debating whether her "disco pants" were appropriate for a murder trial.
McQuillan defended her choice of clothing on Twitter, saying "I'm sitting under a table! No one even sees my legs! I don't know why people are acting like they've never seen sequined pants before."
In 2016, British temp worker Nicola Thorp stirred up a debate around work clothing after she was sent home without pay over her "unacceptable" flat shoes.
Thorp, a London-based actress, was doing temporary work with accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers' outsourced reception company Portico. She was told to head to the shops and buy a pair of 2- to 4-inch heels. She refused and was sent home.
In response, Thorp launched an online petition, pushing for a law change making it illegal for companies to force women to wear high heels to work.
The issue was debated in the UK Parliament, where the Equalities Office found existing legislation outlawing discrimination was "adequate".
While the law change didn't happen, the Parliament of the United Kingdom's Petitions Committee, as well as the Women in Conjunction with the Equalities Committee, released a report into the issue around a year later. The report calls for a review of this area of law.
"We heard from hundreds of women who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply makeup," the report summary reads.
"The government must do more to promote understanding of the law on gender discrimination in the workplace among employees and employers alike."
In March, multinational investment bank and financial services company Goldman Sachs relaxed its dress code for all its employees, adopting a "firm wide flexible dress code".
A memo penned by chief executive David Solomon did not specify which clothes were appropriate.
New Zealand menswear store and suit hire business Munns is closing its doors, after more than a 100 years of trading. Three stores in Auckland and three more in Wellington, Hamilton and Christchurch will be shut within weeks.
The move comes as co-owner Wally Wilson tells Stuff trading has become difficult, as clothing trends become more casual.
Murray Crane, founder of menswear retailer Crane Brothers, agrees men's workwear is shifting across industries and generations. In many offices, people are forgoing a two-piece suit in favour of a blazer and chinos, or jeans.
But not everyone enjoys the choice, nor the need to co-ordinate outfits.
"A lot of men just don't either have the ability to do that, or the mental capacity to want to do it five days a week, 48 weeks of the year.
"They like the ease of wearing a white business shirt and a dark coloured suit."
But Crane is noticing a resurgence in popularity in tuxedos and dark, formal suits - a knock-on effect of casual workwear.
"Because a lot of our clients are dressing more informally for work, it's having a bit of an inverse effect on how they dress when they have a special occasion.
"We're getting guys, particularly younger guys, coming in and saying 'I've never really had the opportunity to wear a suit in my job, so I'd like to get a really nice suit for my wedding."
But he says aspects of the change could bounce back. He's heard from several clients high up in larger corporates around New Zealand who are rethinking the changes they've allowed.
On the other hand, a widespread casualisation of the workforce could be here to stay.
"It's a gradual shift that keeps happening," Crane says.
Either way, O'Fee says bosses who have invested time and money into their workers are entitled to expect their team will represent their brand in the way they want.
And if employees don't agree with this? Jackie says this could be a hint they should find a workplace that's a better cultural fit.
"Don't be the jarring note," she says.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
For the employer:
• Employers are entitled to the expectation their team will abide by the organisation's reasonable and lawful dress code policy.
• A conversation with an employee who's failing to adhere to a dress code policy should be based on the requirements of the job and objective non-compliance with the policy, as opposed to being subjective personal criticism.
• Employers are able to issue a warning to an employee if they consistently fail to follow a reasonable and lawful instruction around dress code compliance.
For the employee:
• Employees have the right to not be discriminated against with dress code policies that include unreasonable rules that are gender-specific, or prevent them, without good reason, from wearing items or hair styles of religious or cultural importance.
• An employer is required to accommodate the practices and dress of a religion - so long as the adjustment needed does not unreasonably disrupt the employer's activities. Health and safety considerations may be relevant.
• A worker can seek an explanation from their employer about why they cannot wear something that aligns with their religious belief, or is culturally important.
Source: Dundas Street Employment Lawyers