Is it self-defeating for organisations to have dress codes especially as workplaces seek to attract and retain millennial and Gen Z talents?
Equity Bank recently revived the age-old debate with its updated manual on how employees should dress, accessories, and wear perfume, among others. It is complete with a body shape guide.
For women, the choice of dress is limited to a suit and should not be cut above the knee. Moreover, there are only six accepted necklines for tops and dresses - ruffled, scooped, high, round, u-neck and v-neck styles.
Men will have to cut their dreadlocks, drop their happy socks, and tight, or don't-touch-my-toes trousers.
Gen Zs and millennials are known to be bold in making fashion statements and bringing back old trends.
In the corporate world, however, there are rules that govern what one should wear to the office. Should companies bend over backwards to accommodate Gen Zs and millennials who are the future?
Appearance, behaviour and communication are three of the most popular trainings that image and etiquette consultant Nthenya Macharia does.
“It depends on the industry. Banks and financial institutions, for instance, handle people’s money. There is a certain expectation that the customer has, so there needs to be a code that provides a standard or uniform way of dressing in the office.
If you are on the floor of a manufacturing plant, you are not going to be wearing a suit.
However, if you are in the administration of that company, then you will probably be expected to wear a suit because you are more likely interacting with investors,” she points out.
When the pandemic hit, most organisations allowed their employees to work from home. It not only disrupted how work was done but also how employees carried themselves.
Ms Macharia says that as a result of the lockdown, meetings became virtual and people did not need to dress up.
“People relaxed. There are big companies such as Safaricom where a large number of their staff still work remotely. For others who resumed working in the offices, workers found that they gained weight during the lockdown due to binge eating and did not invest in new clothing because of the uncertainty of whether life would go back to normal. Everyone was grateful that they survived the pandemic.
Companies were not so strict in the beginning as people were getting back to work,” she points out.
Commitment to professionalism
But now they are beginning to reinforce their dress codes.
In its 83-page guidebook, Equity goes as far as to show which colours or materials its employees should wear and how long or short the outfit should be, using photos.
The bank says the purpose of the revised dress code guidelines is to align with its identity and to cater to the evolving demographic segments and customer expectations.
“The revised dress code reflects a commitment to professionalism, attention to detail, and respect for customers, all of which are integral to the Bank's customer-centric approach,” reads a statement from the bank.
The international language for business, Ms Macharia says, is for a suit. Financial institutions are more likely to enforce stricter dress codes than IT-based institutions.
She says this is mostly because people like programmers, coders and software engineers almost always never meet customers and do not have any reason to dress up. Furthermore, most usually work from home.
Ian Momanyi, 26, recalls an incident last year where he showed up at the media company where he was interning, clad in casual wear. One of his older colleagues asked if he was truly part of the media.
Intellect or the dress?
“Does what I wear determine how I think? I thought that they were only interested in my intellectual prowess. The focus should be on what I bring to the table and not what I choose to wear. As a Gen Z, breaking the fashion sense in my profession gives me leeway to explore my creativity comfortably. Suits get in the way of a beautiful story. I do not think it should matter as long as I do not show up looking homeless,” he says.
The media and communication student believes that if a company wants its employees to dress formally every day, it should pay them enough to afford that lifestyle.
“How can I be earning minimum wage and my employer still expects me to wear a suit?” He laments.
Another GenZ, Dorothy Odondi, says that she would only work for a company with a strict dress code if it paid well. However, she would not stick around for too long.
“We used to wear uniforms in primary and secondary schools. It would be a no for me to wear a uniform to work. We should be able to wear different attire for different days and occasions,” she says.
Feel good factor
Trevor Ojiro, has a different outlook. He sees formal wear as an aid to his job by alluding to a perception of professionalism.
He stands by the slogan - “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you are able to execute at a high level.”
The 30-year-old has worked in business development for an international financial institution for the last two years.
“Most of the clients I work with are banks and micro-finance organisations. I try to keep my look very smart, which would be a suit and tie. It was very natural for me since high school where we wore blazers and ties. At university, I started working in my second year of studies. Even when I worked for institutions that did not have a formal dress code, I stuck to my style. If I walked into a company for a cold visit in a three-piece suit, I was more likely to be let in to see whoever I was requesting a meeting with, even without an appointment,” he observes.
He says that as much as dressing casually does not have a negative bearing on one’s professionalism, dressing formally adds some ‘spice’ and helps older generations to take you more seriously.
Ms Macharia warns that different generations in the workplace will have different ideas about etiquette and grooming.
The older generations make assumptions about the younger ones and vice versa. She says educating them accordingly will help them to be comfortable around each other.
“What I do is try to get people to a level of emotional intelligence, where they know what to wear and at which occasion. It is about knowledge. For those who show some resistance, the reason why they should wear a certain way has not been properly explained to them,” she notes.
Trizah Akola, 23, believes formal dressing leaves a positive impression on colleagues and superiors at the workplace.
“It differentiates how you appear on duty and off duty when you are out of the office,” she says.
It is such a distinction that Equity is hoping to achieve for its workers in Ms Akola's age group.
The revised dress code for Equity recommends straight, boot-cut and pegged cuts trousers that fall straight down from the hip and are worn as part of a full suit. Flared or bell-bottled styles should be avoided.
"When it comes to dress and top necklines, finding the right balance between smart and attractive can be a challenge,” the guidebook reads.
The book goes as far as stating the type and colour of jewellery, shoes and handbags that female staff are allowed to wear or carry.
For men, the guidelines only recommend long, dark-coloured socks and not the popularised ‘happy socks’ with animations and cartoons drawn all over them.
Ms Macharia explains that if companies leave dress codes open to interpretation, it could cause challenges and loopholes since companies have employees who come from different backgrounds and upbringings.
“If the company says that we do not wear short dresses, probably according to me short means that it can reach my thighs. For another person, short is at the ankles. To avoid having to explain it to everyone individually, it is easier to spell it out,” she explains.
“When it comes to financial institutions, it is a choice that you make to work there. If I go to an Islamic state that requires women to cover their hair, it is something that I am aware of. So I will not break the rules because it has consequences. The same applies to organisations and companies that require their employees to look a certain way,” she says.