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'Mufti' bursts bring out the worst

'Mufti' bursts bring out the worst

Published in HR Monthly (Australian Human Resources Institute) December 1997 
Copyright © Rodney Gray
Used with permission of the author: 
Author: Rodney Gray
Employee Communication & Surveys www.employee-communication.com.au
04 September 2007

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not against casual dress. And I've great respect for the main company promoting casual dress, Levi Strauss & Co., especially for its progressive attitudes to human resource management. Moreover, I could be persuaded that permanent casual dress is a great idea for everyone - not just at trendy places like Nike, Virgin and Microsoft.

But what I do object to are the ridiculous claims that productivity improves when people dress casually on occasions (e.g. casual Fridays). I'm convinced that the reverse is true. And the HR managers I've spoken to about this agree with me.

If employees dress casually all of the time there should be no long term drop-off in productivity because there is no special meaning attached to casual dress in such cases. But with 'casual Friday', 'dress down day', 'mufti dress day', or whatever you choose to call it, the meaning communicated is that it is a 'fun', 'casual', 'relaxed' day, enabling employees to 'wind-down to the weekend'. In fact, these are the exact terms Levi Strauss uses in its "How to introduce a Casual Dress Policy" booklet provided to attendees at the AHRI Convention in Brisbane last May. They even go so far as to say that "in the summer many employees are on holiday, so this would be a good time to allow the whole office to dress casually".

The HR managers I've spoken to have all said that employees see 'casual Fridays' as a chance to take things a bit easier, and productivity drops as a result. Think carefully about what the different form of dress on such days communicates to employees. Does it communicate that this is the one day of the month to let 'oxygen reach the brain' (and improve productivity) as claim the advertisements for Levi Strauss? Or does it imply that this day is more casual, easy-going, with fewer demands as you 'wind-down to the weekend'?

The reality, at least as I and others I've spoken to see it, is a far cry from the potentially misleading information in The Australian Financial Review on 6 June this year in "Mufti dress brings out the best". In this article it was alleged that "management is finding the practice helps productivity". But the report failed to distinguish between those organisations which had permanent casual dress, and those which had regular or occasional casual dress days.

The clear implication of The Australian Financial Review item was that even casual dress days increased productivity, although no specific evidence was reported for this. The results of the survey reported on were that 45.5 per cent of those surveyed "found that a casual office environment helped improve productivity". But no indication was given as to whether this was for permanent casual dress, casual dress days, or both. And what percentage found the opposite - that casual dress reduced productivity? Perhaps 54.5 per cent?

To prove my point, the company which did the research quoted, Morgan & Banks (now Hudson), only allows four casual dress days a year (to 218 non-casual dress days) and on these four days staff who dressed casually were "not allowed to make outside appointments, or have clients come in". So my case rests. Permanent casual dress may well increase productivity, but casual days send a very different message.

The highly successful sales manager and motivator, Joe Braysich, always insisted his telephone sales people (males and females) not only wore suits, but had to stand with coats on in the office when speaking to clients or prospects on the phone.

But not only do well-dressed people feel confident. Every first year psychology student knows that well-dressed people are far more likely to get their way and are better able to influence others. For example, university research shows more people follow besuited people across streets against 'don't walk' signs, and are much more likely to reveal commercially sensitive information to them. The Sydney Weekly recently reported that a bank robber gained access to a bank before opening hours because he was wearing a suit. The paper suggested "it's a bit of a worry when the criminals start to look respectable".

And most of us have been taught that if we want the boss's job we should dress as though we already have it. A recent piece in the Good Weekend pointed out that "...there's nothing uniform about suits...and if you've got it right, your suit should be as comfortable to wear as your favourite jeans and T-shirt (talk about a uniform!)". I couldn't agree more. My cool wool summer suits are infinitely cooler and more comfortable on hot days than jeans or chinos.

Another problem that UK employees have reported is that you now need to buy more clothes: casual clothes suitable for work, as well as the traditional. Not surprising, given the main promoters of the concept. 

Just as an aside, the casually dressed lawyers, accountants and merchant bankers in my 68 storey building are often better dressed on casual dress Fridays in their designer casual clothes than many of the employees in the head offices of industrial corporations in their normal work gear who seem to think that providing they are wearing a tie they can wear baseball jackets and the like.

So let's have no more of this "untie your tie and feel the oxygen reach your brain" or "if your body feels trapped so does your mind" stuff, at least as far as casual dress days are concerned. But I don't blame Levi Strauss. As (star of the Profumo Affair) Mandy Rice Davies said, "they would say that wouldn't they". They do have a business to run after all.

Let's face it, managers are not stupid. If they truly believed that casual dress days did really improve productivity, then they'd introduce casual dress days more often, even permanently for those who don't have contact with the public if not for everyone.

By all means introduce or continue a casual dress day policy. Maybe staff will love it. But don't for one second fool yourself that productivity will go up. It won't. Everything we know about the communication of meaning in organisations tells us this, and convincingly.

Rodney Grayis principal consultant and managing director of Employee Communication & Surveys Pty Ltd, a "boutique" consultancy specialising in employee communication and employee surveys (including values, culture and internal service quality surveys). He is also the book reviewer for Melcrum’s Strategic Communication Management publication (US and UK). 

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