April 1999 Issue

Benefit or burden? Dress-Down Days

By Terri Gutierrez and R. John Freese

In Brief

But What Do I Wear?

The issue of dress-down days and acceptable casual business attire in a public CPA firm is relevant to many CPAs, as indicated by their responses to a recent survey. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents work in firms that have dress-down day policies. While the majority tended to display positive attitudes toward wearing casual business attire, there were differences in attitude between younger and older CPAs and between those in lower- and upper-level positions within their firms. The differences in attitudes may reflect the different cultural values with which the younger and older CPAs were raised.

Many respondents expressed uncertainty about what is acceptable to wear on dress-down days. What is casual business attire? The responses revealed that creating a uniform definition of casual attire that fits all CPAs in public accounting firms is impossible. The definition is dependent upon such variables as gender, geographic location, type of firm, and the day's activities. Nevertheless, common sense prevails: Clothing should be neat, clean, and pressed--not offensive, tasteless, revealing, or sloppy.

Many companies have adopted Friday as a casual or dress-down day, while others have made casual business attire a full-time policy. Some employees view wearing casual business clothing as an employee benefit. To others, it is a disaster. Both men and women are often confused about what "casual" means and about how to dress casually and still look professional. How do CPAs feel about dress-down days and what is acceptable casual business attire in
the public accounting profession? Although companies tend to regard casual days as an employee benefit, no evidence exists to indicate whether CPAs agree.

The Emergence of Dress-Down Days

The birth of dress-down days is attributed to several different factors. It is credited, in part, to the high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley of California that, when they started 30 years ago, hired primarily people from blue-collar backgrounds. Because these employees were more comfortable in the casual clothing they had worn all their lives, employers adopted relaxed dress codes.

The idea for casual Fridays spawned from fund-raising initiatives by charitable organizations that engaged employers to allow employees to buy the privilege to wear casual attire to work by donating money to the charitable organization. Further impetus for dress-down Fridays came from employers' needs to improve the morale of white-collar workers that saw their colleagues laid off in droves during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the past 10 years, the trend toward dress-down Fridays and dress-down everydays has spread through the corporate world and the public accounting profession. A 1994 survey by the NPD Group revealed that almost 90% of U.S. workers wear casual clothing to the office at least part of the time.

The acceptance of dress-down days by corporate America and the public accounting profession is more than just a passing fad. Casual business attire is here to stay. But what is casual business attire? Who has defined the concept for us? According to business clothing guru John T. Molloy, male executives simply "trade their suits for sports jackets or traditional golf outfits: a cotton golf shirt and slacks or chinos." Molloy says male executives have been wearing golf outfits to company outings for years.

But what about the rest of the professional workforce? Who has defined casual business attire for them? The fashion industry has certainly been influential in molding the definition. With the male executive's golf outfit as a starting point, clothing manufacturers and retailers have been aggressively designing and marketing casual business attire with helpful videos, literature, and seminars for professional workers. For example, the Bon Marche has held seminars on casual business attire at the corporate headquarters of several corporations. In fashion magazine ads, Neiman Marcus provides an 800 number that readers can call to get an instructional video on casual dress, and Dayton Hudson Corp. has conducted fashion seminars for more than 400 companies, including Arthur Andersen. Levi Strauss & Co. has an elaborate kit titled "How to Put Casual Businesswear to Work," a casual wear counselor at an 800 number, and a casual clothing newsletter.

Benefits and Burdens

Much has been written about the perceived benefits and burdens of wearing casual business clothing. Some of the more commonly touted benefits include improved employee morale, a lack of cost to the employer, increased worker productivity, more open communication between staff and managers, cost savings to employees because casual business wear is less expensive, and improved work quality.

Nevertheless, pitfalls may also exist when employees are allowed to wear casual clothing. Employees may be confused about what is acceptable attire, there may be resistance from the old guard about the appropriateness of dressing down, employees may interpret the word casual too liberally and wear inappropriate clothing, and the professional image of workers may be weakened if clients feel employees are too casual to be entrusted with their business. Traditionally disadvantaged minority groups may feel the need for business attire to give them standing and confidence. Casual clothing, with its diverse styles, lacks the uniformity and conformity associated with traditional business wear and may cause some to feel uncomfortable or less presentable in professional situations. They may not be taken seriously or seen as effective when dressed casually.

The Survey

To determine the attitudes of CPAs in public accounting toward casual business clothing and appropriate attire, a survey was mailed to a sample of 1,540 CPAs nationwide. The sample was secured from the membership of the AICPA. Some 439 responses were received, for a response rate of 29%. While an equal number of men and women were surveyed, the responses were disproportionate: 58% of the responses were from women and 42% were from men. This might suggest that the issue is more important to women.

The survey instrument contained questions to determine--

* the frequency and types of dress codes in effect,

* attitudes toward wearing casual business attire,

* the types of casual attire that are appropriate to wear, and

* the effects of several variables on attitude and appropriate attire.

The survey also asked open-ended questions, giving respondents the opportunity to discuss issues not addressed elsewhere.

Frequency and Types of Dress Codes

Ninety percent of respondents reported that their firms have dress codes. One half are written and the other half unwritten. Nearly three-fourths (72%) of the CPAs said their firms have dress-down day policies, with 82% reporting year-round privileges and 12% seasonal. Those CPAs whose firms have dress-down days were asked how many days of the regular five-day work week they are allowed to dress casually during the time the dress-down day policy is in effect. The majority (78%) may dress casually for one day only during the week. Nineteen percent are allowed to dress casually all the time, and the remaining three percent have two, three, or four casual days per week. Finally, the CPAs responded to questions about dress standards for different levels of employees and for different activities. Only 15% reported having different dress standards for different levels of employees, while 53% have different dress standards for different activities.

Attitudes About Casual Business Attire

CPAs were asked to respond to nine statements about casual clothing to determine their attitudes about wearing casual business attire to work. They were instructed to provide the response to each question that most closely reflects their beliefs about casual business attire for themselves. They were given five response choices:
1) strongly agree, 2) somewhat agree, 3) neither agree nor disagree, 4) somewhat disagree, and 5) strongly disagree.

In addition, respondents were asked for demographic information to determine the effects of seven variables: age, gender, ethnic status, type of firm, position in firm, geographic location, and size of city. Unfortunately, there were not enough responses from ethnic minority CPAs to test the significance of ethnic status on opinions about wearing casual clothing. Of the remaining six variables, only two had a statistically significant effect on attitudes: age and position in firm. The accompanying Table presents a summary of the responses.

"Wearing casual clothing at work improves morale." Nearly three-fourths of respondents (72%) agree with this statement, with 33% strongly agreeing. Only nine percent disagree, and the remaining 19% have no opinion. There is a statistically significant relationship between this statement and an employee's position in her firm. More managers than expected have no opinion about the statement and more partner/owners than expected disagree that wearing casual clothing to work improves morale. Perhaps as employees reach higher ranks within a firm, they lose interest in dressing casually and believe it does not improve morale. Or maybe it is still primarily the old guard in the partner/owner positions that opposed casual dress to begin with because of conservative cultural values. Whatever the case, this difference in opinion between lower- and higher-level employees could lead to misunderstandings between the two groups.

"Wearing casual clothing is an added employee benefit." Slightly more than three-fourths of CPAs (78 %) agree with this statement, eight percent disagree, and 14% neither agree nor disagree. Both age and position in firm have an effect on CPAs' opinions about casual clothing as an added employee benefit. CPAs in the 20­30 group strongly agree that casual clothing is an added benefit, whereas those who are in the over 50 group marginally strongly disagree. Again, this could be an issue of the old guard versus the new, or simply attitudes that change with age.

The belief that wearing casual clothing to work is an added employee benefit is also a function of position within the firm. Surprisingly, fewer seniors than expected agreed with the statement. Position in firm is usually a function of age, and other results indicate that younger CPAs favor casual dress more than older CPAs do. It is unclear why fewer seniors than was expected view casual clothing as an added benefit.

"Wearing casual clothing at work increases productivity." Responses to this statement are not as positive as responses to the first two statements. Half of the respondents (50%) either strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, 34% are neutral, and 15% disagree. Both age and position in the firm have a statistically significant effect on the opinions. In the 20­30 group, more respondents than expected strongly agreed with the statement, fewer than expected in the 41­50 group agreed, and more than expected over 50 strongly disagreed. This pattern again suggests that either feelings about dressing casually change with age or that the older group, which grew up in a more formal work environment, is resistant to change. The relationship of position in firm to opinion about casual clothing increasing productivity is consistent with the age relationship to the statement. Far more staff CPAs than expected strongly agree with the statement.

"Wearing casual clothing improves communication between managers and employees." This statement provoked less opinion than all others. Half the respondents (50%) neither agree nor disagree. Of the remaining half, 29% agree and 21% disagree. Neither age nor position in firm has a significant effect on CPAs' opinions about
this statement.

"A casual dress policy can be used as an incentive to attract new employees." Slightly over half the respondents (54%) agree with this statement, although only 13% strongly agree. Eighteen percent disagree, and 26% are neutral. Age is a significant factor in CPAs' opinions about a casual dress policy as incentive to attract new employees. The 20­30 group strongly agrees with the statement, and fewer in this age group are indifferent to the statement than was expected. More in the 41­50 group disagree with the statement than was expected. Younger employees in particular seem to agree with this s
tatement. Managers, partners, owners, and human resource directors should listen. A casual dress policy is, in fact, a cost-free benefit with no detrimental effects to the firm if properly structured and monitored.

"Wearing casual clothing to work reduces wardrobe costs." Over half the CPAs (56%) agree with this statement, while 17% neither agree nor disagree. More respondents disagree with this statement (26%) than with any of the other eight statements, and it is the older CPAs who tend to disagree more than the younger CPAs. This is not surprising. Casual business clothing generally requires a third wardrobe. Weekend jeans, T-shirts, and sweats are usually not acceptable office attire even on dress-down days. More CPAs in the 41­50 group disagree with this statement than was expected, while more in the over 50 group are indifferent than was expected. Perhaps this result can be explained by the fact that younger employees have spent more of their clothing budget on casual wear to begin with, while older employees, with traditional complete wardrobes, had to acquire new casual attire.

"Wearing casual clothing makes employees more comfortable at work." This statement generated more agreement than any other. Eighty-eight percent of CPAs agree, with 49% strongly agreeing. Only five percent disagree and six percent are indifferent. Both age and position in firm are statistically significant variables to opinions about this statement. Not surprisingly, more CPAs in the 20­30 group strongly agree than was expected, and more in the over 50 group disagree than was expected. With regard to company position, more staff CPAs strongly agree, fewer seniors are indifferent, and fewer partner/owners strongly agree than was expected.

"I like to wear casual clothing to work." This statement generated a lot of positive response. Of the 82% in agreement, 51% strongly agree. Twelve percent disagree, and only six percent have no opinion. Both age and position in firm are significant variables. Nowhere was the polarization of old guard and new more prevalent. The 20­30 group strongly agrees with this statement while the over 50 group strongly disagrees. More staff CPAs than expected strongly agree, while fewer partner/owners than expected strongly agree. The dichotomy may have several explanations. Perhaps this is again reflective of the old and new guards'
differing comfort level in wearing casual clothing to work. A more interesting explanation is perhaps discomfort with the loss of class distinction that
may occur when everyone wears casual clothing.

"Given a choice, I would vote to continue or begin wearing casual clothing to work." CPAs agree overwhelmingly, with 52% strongly agreeing and 26% somewhat agreeing. Only five percent are indifferent and 17% disagree. Age is a factor, with more than expected in the 20­30 group strongly agreeing and fewer indifferent, while more than expected in the over 50 group strongly disagree. Position in firm is also significant, with more partner/owners than expected strongly against continuing.

Additional Comments from CPAs

CPAs' responses to open-ended questions about casual business attire primarily reiterated their responses to the attitudinal statements and types of acceptable clothing items. A number of common opinions and concerns were noted throughout. Many CPAs were concerned that dressing casually will harm professional image. They felt that a person generates more respect dressed in traditional office attire and that underdressing makes a negative statement about one's character. One CPA suggested working in a production line for those that want to wear casual clothing. Another compared wearing professional clothing to a football team: "Professional attire promotes professionalism, much as it does for a football team on game day." At least one CPA disagreed that professionalism is endangered by dressing casually. He stated that professionalism is better expressed in quality of service than in formality of dress.

One apparent problem with dress-down day policies is the extremes to which some people carry the notion. Some CPAs stretch the definition, dress too casually, and look like "slobs." More than one respondent reported this to be a problem, especially with junior staff members, which need to be periodically reminded of their firms' dress-down day policies. There was a consensus that CPAs should not dress more casually than their clients. They should always be as formal as the clients they are working with at any given time.

Several CPAs felt that dress-down days complicate things. Some were unsure of what acceptable casual business attire is. Others said it requires a third wardrobe and added expense. One respondent believed it is more expensive for female employees, who are held to a standard of "casual chic," while generic golfing outfits are fine for men. Not all CPAs agreed that it complicates their lives. Two CPAs said it is easier to dress in the morning and takes less time. One firm simplified the decision for its employees by allowing them to wear only casual shirts and sweaters supplied with the firm's logo.

Another problem associated with dress-down days is the casual atmosphere they create. One CPA said it makes employees act lazily and unprofessionally. Another said there is a definite noise level increase in the office on dress-down days. Yet another candidly reported that he is more inclined to leave to play golf when dressed in casual clothing. One respondent made an interesting observation about the number of days that should be dress-down days: She said that when casual days are just one day a week, that day might turn into a "free" day that is unproductive. If, on the other hand, every day is dress-down day, employees will be comfortable all the time, and every day will feel like a normal day rather than a free day.

The overriding concern was for a clear definition of casual business attire. Although such a definition was a goal of this study, results show the impossibility of a definition that fits all CPAs in public accounting firms. There are too many variables to consider, such as gender, geographic location, type of firm, and the day's activities. Based on comments made by responding CPAs, it seems that common sense rules. Clothing should be neat, clean, and pressed, not offensive, tasteless, revealing, or sloppy. Fit, quality, and accessories are important. One respondent said, "If you would not wear it to a wedding, a funeral, or Friday night church, it is not appropriate for work." *

Terri Gutierrez, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting, and R. John Freese, PhD, an emeritus associate professor of computer information systems, both at the University of Northern Colorado.

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