Thursday, May 28, 2009

Should Every Day Be Dress Down #3

When Paine conceived The Delahaye Group 10 years ago, she wanted to include the good features of all the places she'd worked. One of these was the dress code -- or more precisely, the lack of one. She doesn't need a dress-down Friday. At Delahaye, it's dress-down all year long.

Delahaye is a reputation-measuring company. "We provide quantitative and qualitative research around corporate reputations. We measure the effects of what PR agencies do. The short version is that we're image consultants."

Paine's policy, in an overnight bag: "We wear whatever we can be most productive in. For some, that's a dress or suit, and for others it might he shorts and a T-shirt."

Paine expects her staffers to use their judgment, and, she says, they do. "When we know there's a client coming in, it's dress-up day." But there isn't a lot of drop-in trade at Delahaye. "We usually know when a client is coming."

So far, no one has taken advantage of Paine's laissez-faire policy. She credits employees' common sense. "It's downtown Portsmouth -- nobody is going to show up in a bikini. But we're all grown-ups here. If someone was inappropriately dressed for a business meeting off-site, I might say something. But it hasn't happened."

Delahaye now has 52 staffers in-house. Most opt for comfort, and outfits range from business casual to jeans and sweats. "Five or six still dress up, and they're all women. The guys are more casual," she says.

Banks and other financial institutions are Delahaye's polar opposite. Maureen Donovan, human resources director for Bank of NH, Manchester, says the company has a dress code, and it's dressier than most.

"We still prefer the more formal business attire," Donovan says. This means skirt suits for women, or possibly an upscale pantsuit. Men must wear ties and jackets when in the public eye; in the privacy of their offices, they can ditch the jacket, but the tie stays.

There is no regular "dress-down Friday." Staff members may dress in casual clothes occasionally, for special promotions or holidays. But formal is normal for the 85 employees in the bank's main Manchester office.

Donovan adds, though, that even bank attire has changed with the times. "It hasn't changed dramatically, but what's acceptable has loosened up a little."

For example, women don't have to wear suits all the time. What is Donovan wearing? She practices what she preaches.

"Today I'm in a dressy dress, with a jacket and scarf."

Other companies also prefer the older formal style of dress. Steve Griffin, vice-president of Isaacson Steel in Berlin, says his company opts for traditional business attire four days a week. "The account and administrative departments meet with the public every day. It's expected."

He and the other male staffers wear coats and ties; for the women, skirts are in order.

But Isaacson's staff can romp through a casual day every Friday. It's corporate casual, which means no jeans. "I get to take the tie off," Griffin says. "It's not as stuffy, but it's not grubby, either."

"Casual Friday" came into being in June 1995. "The president and I got tired of wearing ties. There was a `stuffiness cloud' over our heads."

Isaacson's professionals try to schedule client meetings Monday through Thursday, and save Friday for a catch-up day. It's Thursday afternoon, and Griffin is wearing a white shirt, blue slacks and a blue "teardrop" tie. "There's a sport coat on my coat rack."

Will "business casual" replace traditional business dress? Griffin enjoys it, but he hopes not. "The `uniform' of the '70s went too far. Everybody looked like a banker. But if you dress too casually, your mind-set will be too casual toward your work. For some reason, I have to have a coat and tie on most of the time. It's something between my ears, I guess."

But PSNN's Murray believes business casual represents a "loosening up of society, of how we communicate. A shirt and tie doesn't necessarily demonstrate your expertise and abilities. But an appropriate level of dress is a reflection of the company in the eyes of the customer."

Whatever your sartorial style, there's a company out there for you. And if it's an unstructured dress policy, like Paine's, there's an unexpected side benefit. "You can tell when people come to the last of their clean laundry," Paine says. "The fancier clothes are all they have left."

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