July 12, 2016

Corporate culture: Suits and Ties Generally Dominate in Mid-South

By David Royer
– The Memphis Business Journal –

In today’s increasingly laid-back workplace, where casual Friday often extends into Monday through Thursday, there are fewer safe harbors left for the traditional “man in the gray flannel suit.”

Still, formal business attire remains an important part of the corporate culture and public image of many companies, even as the “business casual” look of polo shirts, khaki pants and sometimes even blue jeans slowly gains wider acceptance in offices.

Managers say their office dress codes aren’t so much written in stone as they are dictated by their companies’ internal culture.

The Western business suit, modeled on military uniforms, was designed to convey authority from the tie (a vestige of the cravats worn by Croatian mercenaries in the 17th century) to the blazer, button-down shirt and wingtips (all based on elements from British military uniforms).

Back before managers embraced creativity and individuality as positive traits in their employees, and software engineers began showing up for work in shorts and T-shirts, strict dress codes cultivated an image of the company as a homogenous unstoppable army of capitalists. It’s a model that still works well for many offices.

“Corporate culture, we’ve learned, is the hardest thing to build on a daily basis,” says Earl Blankenship, chairman and CEO with commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis. “The irony is, it’s the easiest thing to lose.” CB employees rarely come to the office in anything other than suits and ties. Even on casual Fridays, they may drop the tie at most. But there’s no hard and fast dress code in the office – business suits are part of the company’s culture and public image. The dress code is voluntary and enforced by the employees themselves.

Every once in a while, Blankenship says the idea of going casual is floated around the office. It’s always promptly shot down.

“You’ve got to be totally sold-out and committed to who you say you are in the marketplace,” he says. “The folks who work here have bought into what we do, so it’s not something that has to be mandated. We’re the physical manifestation of who CB Richard Ellis is.”

The solid, professional culture at Boyle Investment Co. has been cultivated over decades, and em ployees are expected to reflect that image, says senior vice president and chief administrative officer Bob Lofton.

“When one of our employees is meeting with clients, we expect that employee to look businesslike,” Lofton says. “That employee represents Boyle Investment Co. for what it is: an old, established company.” Dressing well is physiologically important whether seeing clients or not, Lofton says.

“If I come to work wearing a nice suit, shirt and tie, I feel more businesslike.”

Nearly none out of ten American offices have tried relaxing dress codes, either on designated casual days, special occasions or full-time.

The results of this “casualization” are still unclear. According to one survey, 51% of workers felt they did their best work when dressed casually. Others say it just leads to more absenteeism and lowered productivity.

Not even managers themselves can agree on the effect casual days have on business.

A 2000 survey of 1,000 business managers conducted by employment law firm Jackson Lewis found that 40% of the managers thought dress-down days boosted employee productivity and moral.

In the same survey, though, an almost equal percentage, 44% thought that relaxed dress led to an increase in tardiness and sick days, canceling out much of that productivity increase.

Banks are usually known for being rigid institutions, not receptive to liberal ideas like casual dress in the work place.

But First Tennessee media relations manager Kim Cherry says the bank takes a common-sense approach to dress codes, allowing its teams to dress in whatever way is appropriate for the job they do.

“We found out a long time ago, when our employees are happy and contented and less distracted at work, it leads to more loyal customers,” she says.

“Whatever we’re all choosing to wear, it must work.”