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.
Nearly 20 million people of working age live with a disability in the US, according to Census data, while the unemployment rate among this demographic is about three times the national average. Recent research suggests that a lack of adaptive clothing suited to a professional environment may play a role in the underemployment of persons with disabilities. Kerri McBee-Black and Jung Ha-Brookshire, from the University of Missouri’s department of textile and apparel management, analyzed the professional experiences of 12 people with either physical or psychological disabilities to see what impact workplace dress codes had on their experiences in the job market. As they discovered, these rules can seriously limit their employability.
Just a few retailers, such as Izzy Camilleri or Silvert’s, specialize in adaptive clothing, which might include snaps or magnets instead of buttons, for example, or accommodate the specific needs of wheelchair users. Even fewer mainstream apparel brands, such as Target and Tommy Hilfiger, produce lines of adaptive clothing. Professional attire for people with disabilities is particularly limited, expensive, and hard to find. This lack of availability creates obstacles when trying to fit into a corporate work environment, of which people without disabilities may not be cognizant. These obstacles keep some people with disabilities out of the workforce entirely, or discourage them from pursuing careers for which they are highly qualified, McBee-Black said in an interview last month with Nadra Nittle at Racked:
One particular young woman who used a wheelchair and has a college degree and experience in the banking industry did not feel comfortable applying for a job in the bank when she graduated. She said, “I knew they had a specific dress code and that dress code would make it hard to use the restroom without assistance from others.” She was independent in every other aspect of her life but that, so she never once considered applying for a job at the bank.
It is imperative, McBee-Black argues, that more clothing retailers market adaptive clothing appropriate for the professional environment. Employers also have an important role, however, in ensuring that they are not inadvertently creating unwelcoming work environments for people with disabilities. Here are a few steps organizations can take to make their workplaces more disability-friendly:
In 2016, a US appeals court ruled against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a suit the agency had brought on behalf of Chastity Jones, a black woman who had been denied employment at the Mobile, Alabama insurance claims processing company Catastrophe Management Solutions after she refused to cut her dreadlocks in compliance with the company’s grooming policy. Absent an explicit racial dimension to the policy, the court ruled, CMS was within its rights to ban dreadlocks in general as part of its dress code.
The EEOC chose not to pursue the case further, but the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sought to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court. Last week, however, the high court said it would not take the case. The court’s refusal to hear this case is a blow to advocates who see workplace hairstyle policies like these as discriminatory in effect if not intent, as they place greater constraints on the choices black people, and particularly black women, than other employees and often penalize black employees for wearing natural hairstyles. Implicit bias against black women’s naturally textured hair is a well-documented phenomenon in American society, which causes many black women to experience pressure to artificially straighten their hair or wear hairpieces.
CMS’s dress code did not explicitly mention dreadlocks, but rather mandated grooming that reflected a “professional image” and barred “excessive hairstyles.” This suggests to Rewire’s senior legal analyst Imani Gandy that such policies as applied are not as race-neutral as they appear on paper:
First, CMS’s purported race-neutral grooming policy is anything but—since it excludes Black women’s natural hairstyles based on stereotypes that natural hairstyles are unprofessional, messy, not neat, political, radical, too eye-catching, or excessive.
Walmart is piloting a new dress code in some of its US stores that will give employees more options for what they can wear to work, Bloomberg’s Matthew Boyle reported on Thursday:
Employees … will now be allowed to wear shirts of any solid color, rather than just blue or white, according to an employee manual obtained by Bloomberg News. Blue jeans are also permitted — as long as they’re solid blue — whereas previously only khaki-colored or black denim pants were allowed. Visible facial tattoos are forbidden for those hired after April 14, the manual said. …
Some Walmart workers embraced the dress code changes, with one saying on an employee message board: “I would love this! I hope it comes to my store.” Others were skeptical that it would get past the testing phase, which began in fewer than two dozen stores this month.
Walmart last adjusted its dress code in 2015, when it gave its US employees permission to wear black or khaki-colored denim pants and let workers with more physically-intensive jobs wear t-shirts to work instead of collared shirts. That change came after a new dress code the company adopted the previous year—requiring white or navy collared shirts, khaki or black pants, close-toed shoes, and a new design of the big-box store’s branded blue uniform vest—was poorly received by employees, Hayley Peterson adds at Business Insider.
Since taking up the position of CEO at General Motors in 2014, Mary Barra has undertaken to transform the culture of the storied American automaker. As the automotive industry and other legacy manufacturers find themselves increasingly in competition with big tech companies for talent—in Detroit’s case, a product of the race to market self-driving cars—they have had to expand their talent attraction strategies outside their traditional blue-collar comfort zone and reach out to candidates with very different expectations and values, as well as more diverse backgrounds.
Barra’s approach to culture change at GM has focused in part on simplifying rules and policies that might strike this new generation of talent as arbitrary and overly bureaucratic, such as the dress code, which she shrunk from a detailed section in the employee handbook to just two words: “Dress appropriately.” Barra told the story at the Wharton People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia last month, from which Quartz’s Leah Fessler passes it along:
After replacing GM’s 10-page dress code treatise with a two-word appeal, Barra received a scathing email from a senior-level director. “He said, ‘You need to put out a better dress policy, this is not enough.’ So I called him—and of course that shook him a little bit. And I asked him to help me understand why the policy was inept.” The director explained that occasionally, some people on his team had to deal with government officials on short notice, and had to be dressed appropriately for that.
Various rights groups are up in arms after the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that it was permissible for companies to bar employees from wearing religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf or hijab worn by observant Muslim women, under some circumstances. In its ruling, Reuters reports, the ECJ found that a Belgian firm with a rule prohibiting customer-facing employees from wearing religious symbols may not have discriminated against a Muslim employee dismissed for refusing to remove her hijab:
Reactions … focused on the conclusion that services firm G4S in Belgium was entitled to dismiss receptionist Samira Achbita in 2006 if, in pursuit of legitimate business interests, it fairly applied a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to project an image of political and religious neutrality.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, said the ruling “weakens the guarantee of equality” offered by EU non-discrimination laws. “In many member states, national laws will still recognize that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination,” policy office Maryam Hmadoun said. “But in places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace.”
Interestingly, the court found that in both the Belgian case and the parallel case of a Muslim woman in France, the employees’ terminations may have been discriminatory in nature, but nonetheless ruled that a policy banning the hijab and other religious garb to preserve an organization’s image of neutrality is not necessarily so. However, rights groups argue that these bans target Muslims in effect, if not intent, and threaten to shut many Muslim women out of the workforce entirely.
A US appeals court has ruled 3–0 that an employer was within their rights not to hire a black woman who refused to cut her dreadlocks, dismissing a discrimination case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Wall Street Journal reported late last week:
Delving into weighty questions about the concept of race, the case began in 2013 when the EEOC accused an insurance claims processing company in Mobile, Ala., of discriminating against an applicant named Chastity Jones. Ms. Jones applied to work for Catastrophe Management Solutions as a customer service representative in 2010. Initially, she was hired. But the job came with a request: The company’s human resources manager told her she needed to cut her dreadlocks to comply with its grooming policy.
The company requires employees to be dressed and groomed “in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image.” And dreadlocks, the HR manager told Ms. Jones, “tend to get messy.” When Ms. Jones refused to change her hair, the company withdrew the offer.
The EEOC alleged that the “prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The argument, the EEOC said, is based on an understanding of race as “a social construct” that “has no biological definition.”
Judge Adalberto Jordan disagreed, however, noting that while “there have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race,” his court was not prepared to blaze a trail on that definition. “As far as we can tell,” he wrote in the court’s opinion, “every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race.”
Workforce legal commentator Jon Hyman calls the case “a fascinating read on whether protected classes are tied to biological characteristics or societal constructs, and whether what is considered immutable can change with changes in ethos”: