A few months ago, UBS (ex Union de Banques Suisses before it merged with SBS) made it hard in the international press by releasing a complete and precise printed Dress Code with an aim to making sure all of its personnel would match the corporate style and client-centered values in its attire.
Everyone laughed at it as it spread around the world via the internet.
This Dress Code went as far as to advise employees about the proper use of underwear, colors and size. I found it surprising. In fact it never occurred to me that my banker might lose some of his/her listening abilities because of being constrained in an undersized underwear. Nor did it ever occur to me that my banker may once have to undress and disclose his/her underwear when discussing smart investments over the counter.
However, let’s be honest. Dress codes are not a new thing, whether formal or informal. In fact they kick in very early. Just have a look at the school playground next door and you’ll see kids and teens all wearing almost the same shoes, the same distressed jeans, the same parkas etc…OK, these are the informal rules, although these are perhaps the strongest rules of all. But plenty of professions have their formal rules: stewards, soldiers, priests, nurses and all sorts of people who have no other choice but to dress in full accordance with their professional uniform.
Many companies have more of less formally established rules about how to dress, what’s acceptable, what’s not. Just Google “dress code” on your browser and you’ll find hundreds of sites teaching you how to dress in a corporate or private occasion. What’s different in the UBS case is the fact that this code feels intrusive. It seems to invade private space, going too close to the skin and pushing norms and alignment to a level hitherto unseen in a corporate environment.
Tell me how you dress, I’ll tell you who you are…
Clearly the way people dress in a company does reflect its norms and culture. It’s a big enough deal for many companies to have “casual Friday” dress rules. People don’t dress the same way as at Apple as at IBM. Generations differ in terms of what they consider acceptable or not. Gen Y and internet start-ups are no Swiss banks. White and blue collar workers differ by collar…
By the same token the way people dress says a lot about their identity, their cultural origin and the kind of society they live in. This may sound very obvious and not such an issue. But to our surprise, dress codes appeared as a very “loaded” subject in a study ICM ran in 2010 to define Culture Bridging Skills and Competencies. When we meet someone, how that person is dressed sends out an immediate and strong message about how similar or how “different” we are.
And we all know how difficult it is to give feedback to someone who might be inappropriately dressed. And how people can get emotional about this. Unconsciously or not, we know that we are treading on private ground.
What’s really at stake
Apparently, UBS’ Code went beyond the limit, at least in Europe where people don’t expect these kinds of explicit norms in order to understand where the limit is.
At the end of the day, accepting diversity or pushing for conformity in how people dress may have more to do with the overall level of discipline and compliance a company expects from its employees than with their dress alone.
In a post financial crisis world, UBS may have intentionally overplayed a message of discipline to compensate for the perception of on-going madness that prevails now in the public mind after the turmoil that nearly brought an end to the whole banking industry.
But perhaps this will only add to the vision of madness?