In an announcement that went out on Tuesday to the roughly 36,000 staff of Goldman Sachs, the bank’s new CEO David Solomon, CFO Stephen Scherr, and COO John Waldron indicated that employees would now have more flexibility in deciding what to wear to work, joining a growing number of financial and professional services firms that have embraced less formal dress codes:
Given our firm philosophy and the changing nature of workplaces generally in favor of a more casual environment, we believe this is the right time to move to a firmwide flexible dress code. Goldman Sachs has a broad and diverse client base around the world, and we want all of our clients to feel comfortable with and confident in our team, so please dress in a manner that is consistent with your clients’ expectations.
Of course, casual dress is not appropriate every day and for every interaction and we trust you will consistently exercise good judgment in this regard. All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace. We hope this approach will provide flexibility for our people and create a welcoming environment for all.
The trend of “white-shoe” firms going business casual took its last big step forward in the summer of 2016, when JPMorgan Chase and PwC both relaxed their policies. Reuters characterizes Goldman Sachs’ decision to follow suit as “a move once considered unimaginable for the Wall Street firm’s leagues of monk-shoed partners and bankers in bespoke suits”:
Historically known as a white-shoe investment bank, Goldman Sachs traditionally required formal business attire. But since 2017, the bank began relaxing its dress code for employees in the technology division and other new digital businesses. This created a divide in the workforce as clear as denim versus pinstripes.
Like other Wall Street banks, Goldman has been competing to secure the best employees. Large technology firms and hedge funds often have more relaxed offices and perks. Tuesday’s announcement was also meant to bring the bank’s traditional policies up to date for its younger workforce. More than 75 percent of Goldman employees are members of the Millennial or Gen Z generations–people born after 1981.
The memo may also reflect the new CEO’s own unconventional style, the New York Times adds:
Solomon, Goldman’s chief, has himself drawn attention for his seemingly unbankerlike pursuits, including his side hustle as a D.J., going by the name of D-Sol, whose first single cracked the Billboard Top 100 charts. And, like his counterpart at JPMorgan, Jamie Dimon, Mr. Solomon has been known to go tieless for public occasions.
One difference between Solomon’s memo and the earlier changes at JPMorgan and PwC is that it contains no specific instructions to Goldman employees as to what is and is not appropriate, or how to judge when it is safe to dress casual and when to err on the side of more formal. This type of ambiguity has been a point of contention at other companies like General Motors, where CEO Mary Barra revealed last year that she had replaced the ten-page dress code with just two words: “Dress appropriately.” While Barra’s intention was surely to make GM more inclusive, not less, a “dress appropriately” policy could backfire on diverse employees by holding them to what their managers consider “appropriate.”
At Quartz, Natasha Frost voices a similar criticism of dress code ambiguity, addressing the language in Goldman’s new policy:
“Be appropriate” can be a fraught instruction—particularly if you’re fresh out of school, new to an industry or organization, are a woman or gender non-conforming, or come from a “non-traditional” background. For women, for example, it can be particularly hard to discern the nuances of what a client or employer will consider an appropriate length of skirt; whether they’ll see wearing heels, makeup, or pantyhose as hallmarks of professionalism; and whether, on warm days, it’s acceptable to wear a sleeveless blouse. Getting it wrong can be deeply humiliating (especially if it results in the employee being sent home to change).
That’s not an insurmountable obstacle, of course: Managers can head off many dress code issues by communicating candidly and openly with their team members, particularly when onboarding new hires, but it may be helpful for HR to make sure those conversations are happening and offer some guidance as to what they should sound like. Bloomberg’s Matt Levine, meanwhile, puts a different spin on the same point:
This memo should be taught in business schools. Goldman’s dress code is that you should dress the way you’re supposed to dress at Goldman. If you have to ask, etc. The difference between a middling banker and a great one is this sort of tacit knowledge, a sense of appropriateness and nuance and savoir-faire, the ability to read and respond to—and shape—the expectations of your internal and external clients. What you wear is the least complicated part of that, and if you need explicit rules for how to dress then you’ll never master the really hard parts. “Important people like to deal with important people,” John Whitehead’s famous commandment says. “Are you one?” That is the dress code. …
Goldman’s dress code has not required suits for many years, has never required bespoke suits, and will probably continue to require suits for most client meetings outside of the tech industry. Meanwhile I am confident that it is not now, and will not ever be, a good idea at Goldman Sachs to wear khakis to the office on weekdays. In practice I suspect the new rules will mostly just lead to a moderate uptick in jeans among junior bankers with no client meetings.