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Dress code: how are CPA firms handling the trend toward more casual attire at work? An informal survey gives some answers.

Call it "dress-down Friday" or "business casual." Either way, there seem to be almost as many ways to describe the trend toward allowing employees to abandon traditional business dress on one or more days during the week as there are interpretations of what it means. Are blue jeans OK? No? What about black jeans? Can women wear pants? Do shirts have to have collars? Can I wear sneakers?

According to Timothy F. Finley, chairman and chief executive officer of Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Hampstead, Maryland, "People do seem to be confused about what `casual' is." Jos. A. Bank manufactures and sells men's and women's tailored clothing in 83 retail stores and through a mail-order catalog.

Himself a CPA, Finley says for the last 10 years his company as conducted "dressing for objectives" seminars for professional associations, CPA firms, law firms and other businesses. The one-hour presentation is designed to help employees develop a professional image and teach them how to build a wardrobe that supports it. About 5 to 10 minutes are devoted to casual dress, and Finley says, "Lately we've gotten a lot of questions."

"The problem we hear most," Finley says, "is that the CEO suddenly looks like the janitor." When asked his company's definition of business casual, Finley says the important distinction is having a jacket, even if it's worn with slacks and a casual shirt. While that's the Jos. A. Bank view, Finley says what you see in reality are sweaters and khaki pants. "We've recently seen a lot of resistance to blue jeans." For some people, Finley says, it becomes such a hassle figuring out what to wear they say they'd rather dress up.

To capitalize on the relaxed trend, Finley says his company is coming out with what he calls a fairly significant casual dress line for men in the fall of 1995. It will be, he says, "more comfortable." The line will include sports coats with a "softer look," tailored khakis, sweaters and more outerwear. To market the line, the Jos. A. Bank catalog will refer specifically to the trend-toward business casual dress.

How are CPA firms approaching casual dress? The Journal spoke to six CPAs to see what they and their firms are doing ...

Melissa Fortune, CPA Staff accountant, Brennan, Jacobs & Company Bakersfield, California

Our firm's "dress-down Friday" policy went into effect in January.

We all voted on the policy, and all of us - two partners, five staff CPAs and support staff - believe it's working fine.

We can wear jeans, but they mustn't have holes in them and they can't have a "grunged-out" look. We can wear shirts without collars - even t-shirts - but they can't have slogans written on them. Also, we can't wear tennis shoes or open sandals. The dress options are about the same for men and women and we don't have any guidelines regarding hair length for men.

We work hard and wanted something that would make us feel comfortable and casual once in a while. This is a working office and we generally don't see clients here, so being able to dress casually on Fridays, if we aren't going out to a client's office, made sense.

In fact, we have a number of agricultural clients and others in oil refinery maintenance, so when we go out to see them, we don't dress up either. For example, if I'm walking around the client's farm, going through the fields, doing an inspection of the property or an inventory of their fixed assets, I'll wear khaki pants and low-heeled shoes. The same holds true if I'm at the refinery, verifying their fixed assets. Even if I go to visit the corporate offices, I'll generally dress casually, because the company staff dresses that way.

Paul Gallegra Staff accountant, Paneth, Haber & Zimmerman New York City.

When I started at Paneth, Haber & Zimmerman, they were putting the finishing touches on a total office makeover. During that time, the office dress code was more casual than usual: jeans,, sneakers and button-down shirts. In fact, for a while I regretted spending all my money on the traditional wool suits when what I really needed were some new outfits from The Gap.

Our usual dress-down days - summer Fridays - are more formal than that. We can't wear jeans or t-shirts - I'll probably wear khakis and polo-type shirts, as long as I'm not meeting with a client. I admit I'm looking forward to it, because the formal dress code is still a little new for me. I passed my CPA exams just last spring and still have my experience requirement ahead of me.

I'm still very conscious of the need to dress correctly. The written dress code at Paneth, Haber & Zimmerman states only that personal appearance is important, but the equally important unwritten code is that men must wear a suit and tie - not a sports jacket - every day. Women may wear pants suits. I think those outside the profession, our clients, have an idea of how CPAs dress. They imagine us relaxing at home, still wearing our suits. I don't want to disappoint them.

Before I came here I worked on the bookkeeping staff at a much more casual firm. Now I have to take great care every day to make sure I look professional. Basically, there's not a day when you won't catch me looking my best. I own gray, blue and brown suits, which I wear with white shirts, sometimes blue. I "dress to impress" - it's part of gaining respect.

Rebecca J. Miller, CPA Partner in charge of employee benefits consulting, McGladrey & Pullen Rochester, Minnesota.

When I left Arthur Andersen to go to McGladrey & Pullen in 1979, I told friends I had to leave because they didn't make black wingtips in my size.

Of course, it's a joke, but there's also an element of truth to it. In those days, especially in large, conservative CPA firms, the term "business dress" meant "wingtips" - a symbol for the dark suit, white shirt and a conservative tie. Today, while most CPA firms still have a dress code, the definition of business dress is not so rigid. For example, in our office in Pierre, South Dakota (population 12,000), a sports coat constitutes business dress. But if one of our professionals in our New York office came to work in a sports coat there would be a collective raising of eyebrows.

Here at McGladrey & Pullen, where we have 74 offices across the country, we leave it up to each office to define business dress. For the most part, we are client-driven: If a client dresses casually, we follow suit - no pun intended. After all, I think it would be very awkward for a casually dressed client to work with a conservatively suited CPA.

During our light season and during the summer many of our offices have casual Fridays. Most men wear khaki trousers, nice shirts - even short sleeves - no tie. On a casual Friday during the winter it's corduroy and a nice sweater. Women wear slacks and sweaters or blouses. But no blue jeans, no sweat shirts, no shorts.

Before I meet with a client I've never visited before I regularly call the client-service partner beforehand and say, "Okay, who are these people? What role do you want me to play - a dark suit or a red knit dress or khaki trousers?" You've got to ask: There are always some who will be put off by one dress mode - and it's not predictable.

While the new rules are less rigid, they also give you plenty of opportunity to mess up-which is why I always call ahead when I'm not sure.

An example of how complex this issue is: One casual-dress Friday I bumped into one of my clients, who was visiting someone else in our office. He chewed me out for my casual attire. He said, "If we're going to pay you professional rates, I expect you to dress like a professional."

Well, that's not a usual reaction, nor is it a generational reaction.

For women, the dress code issue is a bit more complicated. Dress codes have changed dramatically since 1975, when I started in this profession. In those days there were few women in public accounting and it wasn't clear what our uniform was supposed to be - although there was lots of talk about what's appropriate and what's not. By the 1980s - as more women entered the profession - things began settling down: We kind of knew what was appropriate. But now, with the introduction of business casual and casual Fridays the disequilibrium has returned. No one is really sure what appropriate attire is in each setting. Ask 30 professional women what's appropriate and you'll get 30 different answers.

Since I'm a boss-I'm in charge of a department - I have a fair amount of liberty. It's easier for women in authority because the standard is not as rigid for them as it is for men. Personally, I wear tailored slacks a lot, and it's okay. But in our southern region, some offices have policies discouraging slacks for women employees.

What about jewelry? It should be understated. The minute you start clunking you're in trouble. And fragrances are all right but they have to be very light - whether on a casual Friday or otherwise.

How about men who wear earrings? I have no problem with that. It's very generational. If one of my staffers were to wear an earring, I would advise him, "If you're going to meet with some clients, ask yourself how would they react. You don't want to create controversy at a meeting that distracts from the reason you're there."

What do I wear when I'm not seeing clients? Typically, it's flat shoes, tailored trousers, matching jacket or a blazer and a turtleneck sweater. In general, I believe you should dress as comfortably as possible.

Gregory J. Stemler, CPA Partner, Holsinger, Stemler, Hook & Associates Pittsburgh.

There had always been an informal nature to our practice in terms of required business attire for our employees. We did not have an official dress-down policy on Fridays or any other day, but casual dress was permitted if we did not have a client meeting scheduled. Since October of last year, the firm has eliminated the dress-down option and it has been strictly business attire every day except Saturday.

Why did we make the change? Recently the partners observed that this casual dressing was creating much too informal an office atmosphere and sensed that our professionalism was not being presented appropriately. It was awkward when a client came to the office with less than a day's notice and we were dressed casually. In such a case, you can only hope the client can look beyond the way you are dressed.

Our informal, relaxed atmosphere also resulted in reduced employee productivity. During a typical 40-hour week, we billed fewer hours than before we allowed casual dress. In some weeks, we lost as much as 20% to 25% in productivity.

We decided to announce the change at the beginning of our busy season. This seemed a logical time, as it is very hectic here and, accordingly, client contact increases. There were no problems because of the change; the staff made the transition smoothly and understood that we work in a very professional environment. Our chargeable hours and realization have increased significantly.

The firm has seen tremendous growth in the last few years. Five years ago, the firm consisted of 1 partner, 1 manager, 4 staff accountants and 3 administrative support staff. We currently have 3 partners, 1 manager, 11 staff accountants and,5 support staff.

Kelcy M. Whitman, CPA Partner, Crowe Chizek & Company Indianapolis.

Our firm's dress code requires women to wear a coordinated suit or business dress. Only recently has "suit" been understood to include pants suit.

We have eight offices in four Midwestern states: Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. The managing partner of each of our local offices has say over any variation to our general policy. Women in most of our offices have welcomed the subtle change in policy and now are regularly wearing pants suits. However, in Indianapolis we haven't seen much change. No one here really encourages it. I am the most senior woman in the office and I am not setting any trends towards pants suits. I can't tell you why - a pants suit doesn't have to look casual, and slacks generally are more comfortable than a skirt.

I guess it's because I haven't seen many other professional women in the city wearing slacks. There may be a significant shift to pants suits occurring across the country, but parts of the Midwest have not experienced this shift. However, I have started to see more pants suits in the stores and catalogs.

Some of our offices, as well as other Indianapolis CPA firms, have instituted a monthly or weekly "casual" day. Usually this means our employees can wear nice pants or slacks and a shirt, blouse or sweater. No jeans. The Indianapolis office has yet to adopt a casual day. Some people want to maintain our current image and do not favor a casual day during the traditional workweek. "After all," they say, "we have a casual day every Saturday." Others think a casual day would be good for employee morale.

One reason CPAs dress so conservatively is because they come into regular contact with clients and other businesspeople who expect them to maintain a certain image. For many, this image simply doesn't include pants suits ... yet. Pants suits or not, I don't think CPA firms are the place to look to lead the trend to more casual business attire. CPA fashions for both men and women are fairly conservative, and I think they are likely to change very slowly.

Barton C. Francis, CPA Partner, Shellenhamer & Co. Palmyra, Pennsylvania.

Our firm has a casual dress policy year round. We have six professionals and, during tax season, about a dozen part-time and seasonal employees. The building that houses our office consists of the original building and an addition in back that is one big open work area. Because the employees who work in the back area deal only infrequently with the public, they can dress however they feel comfortable, including blue jeans and stirrup pants. Even if they have to come out to answer a client question, that's fine. We are a comfortable and casual office.

In the front office where the professionals work, it's up to us how we are dressed. Men wear ties probably two to three days a week, but the founder, John Shellenhamer, doesn't wear one at all. He's the one who set the firm's original casual policy. Our clients have come to expect us not to be dressed in three-piece, $1,000 suits.

I often wear a suit when I am out at a client - following the dress I might find in their office - although I have some clients who object to my wearing one. Then I wear what's called for based on the location; if it's a pig farm and I'll be mucking through mud, I'll be in jeans and boots. Otherwise, I wear khaki pants and a casual dress shirt - which is what I wear in the office if I'm not wearing a tie. In the summer, I might wear a short-sleeve polo-type shirt. It's based on whom I'm meeting, where I'm going and sometimes the mood I wake up in that morning.

If I have a last-minute appointment, few clients would be offended by my casual dress. I let them know over the phone to expect it so it won't be a surprise when I walk in the door. There are some clients I'd prefer not to meet unless I'm wearing my "accountant's suit." But even they have called unexpectedly and it's never been a problem.

Our firm isn't really joining the movement toward casual dress - the movement is coming toward us. We aren't leaders, we just have a policy that's different from most accounting firms. One of the reasons I feel this is important is because our employees all work very hard - they never complain if they have to work late. We're a team and we try to create as happy, comfortable and cooperative an atmosphere as possible.
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Author:Whitman, Kelcy M.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:May 1, 1995
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