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Tattoos and khakis: Following Silicon Valley, companies relax dress codes as job candidates wane


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Tired of wearing a suit and tie to work?
You may not have to do it much longer because a growing number of businesses are following Silcon Valley’s lead by relaxing their dress codes in an effort to retain and attract talented employees.
Global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc . links the change to a variety of factors, including an especially tight labor market.
That’s illustrated by recent figures from Beacon Economics. The unemployment rates in April, respectively, were 2.9 percent in the East Bay, 2.6 percent in Santa Clara County and 2.2 percent in the San Francisco-San Mateo area..
But a cultural shift is also at play and it has served to loosen things up, according to Andrew Challenger, the outplacement firm’s vice president.
“For years, companies required stringent dress codes for both men and women due to cultural expectations,” Challenger said in a statement. “A well-dressed workforce was considered key to running a respectable business. But with the startup culture and the work-from-home trend, some companies have started to relax the rules.”
Half of the senior managers polled in a 2016 Office Team survey said their employees were wearing less formal clothing than they did just five years prior to the survey. Thirty-two percent said they were dressing “somewhat less formally” while 18 percent deemed it “much less formally.”
Time to implement a change
Allergan , a firm founded in Orange County and now based in Dublin, Ireland, relaxed its dress code late last year. The company’s thinking was explained in a memo sent to employees:
“We are a company that was made to do things differently,” the memo read. “And it’s time for the Irvine campus to implement a change. Effective immediately, we are moving to smart, casual dress in our office. That’s right! Now casual Fridays can become our everyday attire. Keep it clean and professional, no T-shirts, shorts, flip-flops or sweatpants. But denim is in (if you are into that).”

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Challenger notes tattoos are now common in most workplaces and they rarely cost a job seeker a position. Still, he said it’s wise to cover any tattoos that are large, distracting or potentially offensive when at work or before an interview.
Some experts argue that casual attire fuels a casual attitude that undermines productivity in the workplace, while others say it does the opposite. If employees are allowed to dress more comfortably, they contend, their confidence and productivity will increase.
The dot.com effect …
Casual dress at work was inspired by the Silicon Valley dot.com boom that began in the 1980s. Long work hours and the nature of the tech world prompted companies to break from tradition and wear more comfortable clothing. The move was made to retain and attract young tech talent. But companies in other industries soon realized the strategy would work for them as well.
By the mid-1990s, almost three-quarters of U.S. companies instituted some kind of casual dress day, according to Challenger.
A self-policing strategy
Paul Little, president and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce , said things have loosened up at his office — to a point.
“We do the casual Friday thing, but you can’t wear jeans with holes in them or a T-shirt and flip-flops,” he said. “We’ve become a bit more flexible. I’m wearing penny loafers, black jeans and a sweater today, although if I had a board meeting I’d be wearing a suit. We’re all sort of self-policing. If we’re having a nice chamber event we’ll be dressed up. But if it’s a golf tournament, jeans are OK.”
Little agreed that the tight labor market is likely playing into the equation.
“Unemployment rates are low and I think this gives workers more leverage,” he said. “Employers will be more apt to change their dress codes as long as it doesn’t affect their bottom line. And you have to remember that we have a couple generations of people entering the workforce who have never had that experience of having to wear a suit and tie.”
Keeping it formal
Some businesses have opted to maintain their strict dress codes and the Mathis Brothers Furniture chain is among them. The Oklahoma City-based retailer currently operates 29 stores including two in California. One is in Indio and another 460,000-square-foot location in Ontario employs about 350 workers.
Rit Mathis, a spokesman for the family-owned business, said appearances are important. And professional attire, he said, is a big part of that.
“Things have pretty much stayed the same,” Mathis said. “All of our salespeople wear ties and the women wear equivalent dress. You’re maybe a little more apt to place your trust in a well-dressed person, rather than someone who is dressed sloppily or casual — even if they are saying the same thing.”
Brad Levin, CEO of Legacy Wealth Partners , a wealth management firm based in Woodland Hills, said his company also favors formal attire.
“There are only six of us here but when we interface with clients we maintain professional dress, which includes slacks, a dress shirt and sometimes a tie,” he said. “Sometimes, we’ll even go as far as a suit. We deal with clients who are entrusting us to manage their financial assets, so we want them to know we’re taking the work seriously.”
Play copycat
If you are unsure how to dress in your workplace, Challenger, Gray & Christmas offers the following advice: Play copycat. Every culture is different, but dressing as casually or formally as your colleagues is generally a good practice.
Andrew Jensen , a business growth, efficiency and marketing consultant, said many companies are unsure how to position their dress code, so they adopt a middle-of-the-road, business-casual approach.
But common sense may ultimately be a company’s best indicator.
“If your workplace is extremely casual on an employee-management relations level, introducing an intense dress code into this informal environment is probably going to be counter-intuitive,” Jensen said in a recent blog. “By the same token, if you already have a strict dress code in place but sense resentment among your staff because of it, consider relaxing the attire rules.”
– George Avalos contributed to this story.

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