Sue Neumeister, HR manager at consultant Cyril Sweett, examines the benefits, difficulties and implications of having a company 'dress-down' policy
In a hectic working environment, the notion that the strains of working life can be eased by sitting at your desk in casual clothes may seem to be a case of tinkering at the edges. However, with corporate heavyweights such as accountant Andersen and US bank Merrill Lynch giving their employees the chance to shun their suit and cultivate a casual look, it would seem big business approves. But does casual dressing cultivate a casual attitude, and does its ultimate success depend on the industry you're in?

A recent straw poll of employees at Cyril Sweett showed that many would be happy swapping their suits for something a little more laid back, with the proviso that it would not be full-time, and only if there were no client meetings scheduled. However, others thought it would be more expensive, as it would require a whole new set of "in between" clothes. Some said they wouldn't feel as professional in casual clothes, and many felt there might be an element of "keeping up with the Joneses" with regard to the latest fashions.

In the USA and London, some big corporations in the banking and financial markets adopted dress-down policies a few years back, but are now moving back to formal wear. Customer expectation in terms of corporate image has to be the most important reason. Whereas creative industries are known for their relaxed dress sense, in an industry such as ours, staff are still expected to be dressed smartly.

According to Eddie Brinsmead-Stockham, a programme manager at Microsoft's global real estate team, clothes should match the occasion. "We don't have a formal dress code, nor do we have a dress-down policy – we assume everybody knows what to wear for the circumstances. It's all about being sensible and respecting who you're meeting."

We assume everybody knows what to wear for the circumstances. It’s all about being sensible and respecting who you’re meeting

Aside from the "casual clothes equals casual attitude" argument, one person's idea of casual clothing may be completely different from another's. Hence the widespread belief that a code should reflect the company culture, and set out easily understandable dos and don'ts. But writing such a code and policing it takes time and effort – and what happens to those people who don't want to dress down?

The complications are not just cosmetic, as employment law is a necessary consideration. Any policy must be sure not to discriminate between men and women, nor against religious codes or ethnic traditions. What seems like a perfectly simple decision can soon turn out to be a complicated and lengthy process.

So, what's the answer? If your company is determined to dress down, then the following points need to be considered:

  • Identify your objectives. What are you trying to achieve by allowing staff to dress down?
  • How will you measure success or failure?
  • How would your clients view casual clothing?
  • Conduct a survey to find out if your employees actually want to dress down
  • Create clear, concise guidelines about exactly what should and should not be worn
  • Start off small, perhaps by experimenting with just one day a week to start with
  • Don't force those who feel more comfortable in business clothing to dress down
  • Ensure there is space for clothing to be stored.