On a recent March Friday, human resources director Bobbi D. Kelly was wearing jeans, a cable-knit turtleneck, and black suede wedges to work at public accounting firm Kreischer Miller.
Likewise, many of her colleagues — even the accountants and executives — were dressed in jeans and casual shirts and tops.
But this was no Casual Friday perk.
Since 2016 at Kreischer Miller in Horsham, the policy has been “dress for your day,” which means jeans are fine any day of the week unless an off-site client meeting dictates more formality. The straitlaced days of accountants in dark suits and shiny black leather shoes are fading fast, it appears.
“Some people have worn jeans every day since the policy was implemented,” Kelly said, “unless they need to wear business casual.”
At 2019 Top Workplaces as well as other companies around the region, dress codes are loosening up — part of a national movement driven largely by a younger workforce of millennials and, close behind, the in-their-20s Gen Zers. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2018 Employee Benefits report, half of approximately 3,500 HR respondents said their workplace allowed casual dress every day, an increase of six percentage points over 2017.
Call it the Mark Zuckerberg effect, Christine Endres, regional vice president for staffing specialist Robert Half, said from the company’s Philadelphia office.
Millennials have grown up watching the 34-year-old CEO of Facebook and other tech or creative types show up in T-shirts and jeans (unless testifying before Congress). The 23- to 38-year-olds “like flexibility to show their personality with their attire,” Endres said. Relaxed dress has become so common that Casual Fridays feel archaic in many corners, and at least one company, Airbnb in San Francisco, has opted for Formal Fridays, a chance for employees to jazz up their threads.
Certainly at Top Workplace Kreischer Miller, shifting generations led the company to rethink its policy, according to Kelly, herself a leading-edge millennial at 37. Business attire was expected at the nearly 45-year-old, family-owned firm until the early 2000s, when business casual was adopted.
As millennials have become a larger portion of its 180-plus employee workforce, the policy was revised—making it one of the first public accounting firms in the region to downshift to casual, according to Kelly.
“Millennials value contribution and comfort,” she said. “It’s not just polish and presentation. It’s about what I’m doing, what I’m accomplishing, not about what I look like.”
“And frankly,” she added, “we saw our clients become more and more casual.”
Of course, jeans in the office are not mandatory. “Whatever you feel best in,” Kelly said.
Well, almost whatever. Client meetings in the field usually call for business casual — say, khakis and polo, even a suit at times. In the office, no ripped, faded or baggy jeans, and no shorts, sneakers, or flip-flops. Kelly said only a couple of instances had arisen where an employee wore something inappropriate to work.
The trick is a clear policy. “The more specific a company can be, the better off,” Endres said. “The biggest worry for companies is, will people overdo it.”
Nearly half of 308 human resource managers surveyed in 2018 said jeans, tennis shoes, and leggings are more acceptable as workwear compared to five years ago, according to temp staffing service OfficeTeam, a Robert Half company. In contrast, shorts (36 percent), tank tops (39 percent), and flip-flops (33 percent) are less acceptable.
The survey also reached out to 306 senior managers, 44 percent of whom had talked to employees about inappropriate attire—and nearly one-third said they had sent someone home for the offense.
“There’s some level of professionalism that has to occur to be taken seriously,” said Jon Sharp, president of Hardenbergh Insurance Group (HIG), a Top Workplace in Marlton. “You’re not going to show up in pajamas. That’s the biggest struggle. I don’t want to spend any human capital from a manager on correcting what people are wearing.”
Still, the company last year shifted its suit-and-tie expectation to button-down shirts and slacks or khakis as a way to loosen up the culture and fit in with more casual-dressing clients.
Over the summer months, HIG plans to continue its popular Jeans Fridays. (Employees pay $10 a month for the privilege, and the money is donated.)
“We spend a lot of time here,” Sharp said. “I want to make sure people are having fun. When you loosen the dress code, even when it’s minor, it does make a difference in how people interact.”
In January, Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia officially updated its dress code from business to business casual. It is a nod to a younger workforce that rejects the notion of hierarchy conveyed by dress, said Bill Strahan, executive vice president for human resources at Comcast Cable. But, he added, it also represents an embrace of a culture that wants to emphasize innovation and entrepreneurship.
In fact, the opening of the Comcast Technology Center at 18th and Arch Streets last year was the catalyst, he said. Comcast is a 2019 Top Workplace.
“This campus sees more technologists working here,” Strahan said. “There is a sensibility and practicality among technologists that says, ‘I’m here to contribute as an entrepreneur, an innovator.’ A formal dress that harkens to a corporate structure as opposed to an innovative culture just doesn’t work for that mentality.”
According to Lauren D’Innocenzo, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, giving employees more latitude — and that includes in how they dress — often allows for more innovation.
“It’s about the culture,” she said. “Part of what defines the culture is what employees wear to work.”
Other industries, however, especially older, client-facing ones, might take the approach that appearance matters, that it reflects how seriously the job is taken.
At the nearly 125-year-old Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Co., based in Philadelphia, formality proudly rules.
“In a world of khakis and golf shirts, we have always required professional attire,” said Carla Corrado, manager of talent development at this Top Workplace. “We feel that if you dress professionally, you send a visual message that you and your company are professional and successful. You also tend to treat the people you work with with more respect, and you never know who you will meet up with during your day.”
Dressing up may even affect thought processes, at least according to a 2015 paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. It suggested that formal clothing influences how decisions are made, mainly by enhancing abstract thinking. (Formality, whether in language or dress, increases social distance, and events that are socially distant are thought of in more abstract ways, researchers say.)
All of which is to say, it’s not easy to create a dress code. Said D’Innocenzo, “It’s a careful balancing act.”