How to succeed at work: keep it casual
Irish companies are taking their cue from Silicon Valley and relaxing their 'outdated' employee dress codes
Published 28/09/2016 | 02:30
First-time visitors to Crowley Carbon's offices on the second floor of the Palladian-style Powerscourt House in Co Wicklow, overlooking the estate's 19th-century gardens, might expect the attire of the company's employees to reflect the firm's historic setting.
Instead, staff at Crowley Carbon, an engineering consultancy firm, can be seen wearing shorts on warm summer days. The rest of the year, the dress code is jeans and a T-shirt, though they might wear a shirt if going to meet a client.
Their workwear is inspired by Norman Crowley, the founder and chief executive, who last week was wearing black Adidas trainers that met with his teenage daughters' approval, a T-shirt, and jeans.
A serial entrepreneur, Crowley founded companies such as Inspired Gaming Group, which had revenues of €500m when it was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2006, and The Cloud, a Wi-Fi operator he sold to Sky in 2011 for about €80m.
"For a lot of years, I wore what everyone expected of me," he says. "I wore a suit every day for five or six years and I had a lot of expensive suits in the wardrobe. But I don't anymore. One day, the jeans went on and they never came off.
"We notice that, lately, with some clients, if you arrived in a suit there would be a lack of trust or they might think you were on the make. If I showed up in a suit with any major client, I think they'd be wondering what was wrong," says Crowley.
Diktats on what to wear have traditionally ruled our lives, from the school uniforms intended to ensure less-privileged children are not subjected to taunts for being unable to afford trendy clothes, to the first suit worn by university graduates.
But Crowley is among an expanding number of employers that are taking their cue from technology behemoths such as Facebook and Google, who are dismantling formal dress codes altogether, and trusting employees to make their own sartorial decisions in the hope of creating a more relaxed and creative workplace.
The gradual demise of the dress code in some quarters is part of a global backlash against the tyranny of employers dictating staff fashion choices. The backlash was in the public eye in May, when Nicola Thorp claimed she was sent home from a receptionist role at global accounting firm PwC in London for wearing flat shoes instead of high heels. Afterwards, Portico, the temp agency Thorp was working for, issued a climbdown, saying its female employees could wear plain flat shoes or court shoes, and said PwC had asked it to review and revise its policy.
In June, two cross-party government committees met to discuss the issue after Thorp collected almost 150,000 signatures calling for a ban on employers being able to force women to wear heels to work.
In September, ACAS, the UK conciliation service, warned that negative attitudes within businesses towards people with visible tattoos meant that employers are missing out on a growing pool of young, diverse talent, citing how a large proportion of the under-40s sport a tattoo.
In addition, the country's Social Mobility Commission condemned findings that investment banks were turning down job applicants for minor faux-pas, such as wearing brown shoes with a suit, saying that even if working-class candidates have the right skills and potential, they might not be aware of such arcane cultural rules.
Thorp is not alone in believing that dress codes are "outdated". Gordon O'Neill tired of wearing a suit in the early 1990s, when it was obligatory at the multinational insurance company at which he worked. After setting up Goldfish Telecom, a Greystones-based provider of telephone services over the internet in 2010, he decided his employees shouldn't be told what to wear either.
He believes suits and ties strangle creative thinking and harm business development. To be creative, staff need to be relaxed and they can't do that "dressed as stiffs".
He says it's good for recruitment because people like to work in companies where they are "treated like adults, instead of forced to dress like school kids".
"In summer, people come to work in shorts, T-shirts and sandals, and in winter, they might wear jeans and a T-shirt," O'Neill says. "It's about freedom of choice. People are happier, more productive and more creative. I don't see the downside. I think it's changing elsewhere, too."
After Goldfish's marketing manager noticed O'Neill bagging up his old suits in the office, the CEO decided to run a charity campaign called Sack the Suit. It is encouraging other companies to ditch rules that require staff to wear formal business clothes and donated those clothes to the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP).
More than 20 companies have signed up to the campaign, including DropBox, the American file hosting service, which has already adopted an informal dress code at its headquarters in Dublin.
The dominance of tech workplaces in Ireland, which is home to nine of the world's top 10 tech firms, means formal dress is increasingly being relegated to a few select fields, such as insurance, law, finance and the Oireachtas. Even in the latter, there are plenty of notable exceptions, like Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, and new senator Lynn Ruane, who says her tattoos "tell my life story".
The reins may have been tightened on corporate workwear during the global economic downturn, with Swiss bank UBS issuing a widely mocked 44-page dress code to staff in 2010 that included instructions to female employees on what colour underwear was acceptable. But even in a conservative industry like investment banking, traditionally a sea of navy and grey suits, these rules are being refashioned for the modern age.
In June, JP Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the US, gave workers permission to wear business-casual attire, such as casual pants, capri pants and polo shirts, on most occasions. This was to appeal to clients such as tech start-ups, where trainers and T-shirts are de rigueur. But it was also cognisant that the financial sector is now competing with technology firms for millennial staff, a generation of young workers who bristle at stuffy thinking on office dress and take their cue from hoodie-wearing tech billionaires like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Indeed, in some instances, wearing a suit could hinder your career: a study from Harvard Business School has found that wearing casual clothes and flouting the office dress code could make you seem more competent. Called the "red sneakers effect", it discovered that intentionally standing out from the crowd could send a positive message of status, confidence and power.
The Harvard research found that while "unintentional violations of normative codes and etiquette can indeed result in negative inferences and attributions, when the deviant behaviour appears to be deliberate, it can lead to higher rather than lower status and competence inferences".
Even among employers who favour a casual approach to staff attire, there are plenty of caveats: a young graduate showing up for their first day at a corporate law firm in a pair of tatty red Converse and jeans might not win all-round acceptance from his superiors.
Norma O'Neill, who runs O'Neill Healthcare, one of the leading providers of specialist medical equipment in Ireland, with her husband John, has a "smart casual" dress code because, "in a family business with 10 employees, there is no rank". But she would frown upon an employee who showed up wearing ripped jeans, visible tattoos or nose piercings.
"I think if someone is much too casual, they are not taking work seriously," she says. "It might work in the tech sector, but I don't want someone who's so laid back they're falling over their bean bag."
It could be argued that wealthy entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, who has proclaimed the tie to be "one of the most pointless traditions of the western world", can afford to dress as they want in the office because they've already made it. But what about the rest of us?
Crowley says: "People say, 'you can get away it because you're lucky enough to have made money'. But I think we can get away with it because we know what we're talking about.
"If you think about Mark Zuckerberg wearing a hoodie, he was doing that before he ever earned any money. It shows he has confidence and he doesn't care what you think."