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The Office Workers Left Behind by the Casual Dress Revolution

What happens when a business casual holdout lets employees wear jeans?

Just before Thanksgiving, Chicago-based accounting firm Crowe Horwath put out a video instructing employees on what to wear and what not to. In it, company executives are wearing bad outfits that land them on the company's dress code "Most Wanted List." Violators stand in a mock police lineup in ripped jeans and wrinkled shirts. The video ends with Chief Executive Officer Jim Powers demonstrating shorts that are "too casual for the office," a "C-E-No." It's exactly as cheesy as it sounds.

The video was an introduction to Crowe's new "Dress for your Day" policy, a daily extension of a casual Friday experiment that started a few months earlier. The video was a lighthearted, albeit nerdy attempt to emphasize that some outfits are still too casual for work. No hoodies, gym shoes, or leggings, for example. "Just look in the mirror before you walk out the door, and make sure you look appropriate," said Wendy Cama, office managing partner at Crowe. "You don't look like you're going out to the bars. You're going to work."

The policy isn't a wholesale relaxation of the company dress code. When meeting with clients, the firm's accountants, across its 31 offices, can't wear jeans. Starting last December, however, on days spent quarantined in the office and slouched in front of Excel, all of Crowe's 3,300 employees have been allowed to dress down.

On a recent Friday morning at Crowe's New York offices, Cama, 48, wore black pants that she swears are denim. "I don't own very many blue jeans," said Cama, a 25-year veteran of the firm.

Despite relaxed dress code standards across a variety of fields, the jeans and t-shirt lifestyle never infiltrated such professional industries as accounting and banking. Dress-down days first popped up in the '90s and became an "everyday thing" by the end of the decade—but only for a certain set of office workers. For the last 15 years, the chunk of employers that allow casual dress has hovered steady at around 62 percent, according to yearly surveys by the Society of Human Resources. The same SHRM surveys find that only 36 percent of employers offer casual dress opportunities more than one day a week. 

Client-service-heavy fields such as accounting and consulting have held out, in part because of the nature of the work. "The overwhelming majority [of people] that are coming in to get your guidance on taxes—they look at you, and if you're wearing an $800 dollar suit, they think: She must know something,"said Edward Yost, a human relations business partner at SHRM.

Like many perks, the freedom to wear jeans is a recruiting play. Crowe boasts that it's the only accounting firm in the top 10 that has gone casual. The firm plans to showcase its video at recruitment fairs on college campuses. 

For all the potential benefits, the company is trying to minimize the risk of clients encountering schlubby accountants. In addition to the video, Crowe has sent out explanatory e-mails outlining some dos and don'ts. Cama suggested that employees keep an emergency pair of dress pants in the office. Some managers held meetings about how to best address violators. Others were told to pull aside employees who didn't meet office casual standards. A few employees have been reprimanded for untucked shirts. "Just like kids, when we trust them, they're going to push the boundaries," said Yost. "We need to be willing to actively manage them back into the line."

Higher-ups were advised to embrace the policy to set an example. "I showed up in blue jeans the first day," said Cama. "If you wear it, they will." 

And they did. "I definitely came in the next day wearing jeans," said Brandon Arnon, a 23-year-old audit associate, who, in L.L. Bean Boots and a puffy vest, looks like a lumberjack's accountant. "It was definitely different. I’ve never gone to work [in jeans]. Especially in Manhattan, you think: jeans? To work?" Alexa Stone, a senior audit associate, also wore jeans the first day the policy went into effect. "In the beginning, I was caught off guard," said Stone, 24, dressed in skinny jeans and a flowy top. "I was like, oh my God, I cant believe we're actually switching to this. It's a very millennial idea."

Crowe's employees like having the option to wear jeans more than they like wearing them in actuality. They describe it as liberating. "I'm just a kid coming from college," said Arnon. "The fact that they trust you is definitely refreshing." Few have made the transition to all-jeans, all-the-time. "It's easier for me to get dressed for business casual," said Matt Gigliotti, a senior associate at Crowe, garbed in khakis and a fleece vest. "It takes a little more thought now."

Some senior employees at Crowe still think workers should dress formally every day, said Cama. Messages have gone out to partners emphasizing the importance of accepting the policy. "You can't make people feel bad if they don't wear a suit," said Cama.

Some people believe that how workers dress affects their output, and some evidence supports that view. While one study found that those who wore doctor's lab coats performed better on a test than those who didn't, it's not clear that this confers advantages on those working in a suit in front of a computer. Another study found that wearing a suit makes people think more expansively, rather than paying too much attention to detail—not necessarily a good thing for number crunchers. 

The firm has hammered home to employees that the new dress code should not detract from their work. Some version of the following line was echoed by multiple employees: "While our policy has relaxed, our commitment to client service hasn't," said Gigliotti.

"Everything is the same; we're just dressed different," said Arnon. "That's cool."

(Corrects spelling of the last name of Crowe Horwath's chief executive in first paragraph.)
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