When I started out in consulting many years ago, the dress code was very simple. You wore a suit and tie every day; even if you were on the bench, sitting in the office all day. After all, you never knew when a client would show up for a meeting. It wasn’t a whole lot different for women. They wore skirt suits and high-heels. While they didn’t wear ties, they often wore those bow thingies that looked and felt like ties.
The evolving consulting dress code
Shortly into my career, however, a major revolution took place in the business world: the concept of business-casual Fridays. We started seeing it at client-sites. Nearly all of our clients required the restrictive suit and choking tie costume Monday through Thursday, but on Fridays, they allowed their employees to take off the jacket and tie and wear a pair of khaki pants. Most consulting firms strictly prohibited their consultants from drinking the causal Friday Kool-Aid.
Keep in mind that this was a time when the button-down reputation was a significant part of the branding for some of the top consulting firms. EDS, the consulting firm originally started by Ross Perot, had a rule that you could take your suit jacket off at your desk, but must put it on when away from your desk, even to go to the bathroom. Arthur Anderson (now Accenture) consultants were known as clones or “Androids” because they all looked alike with their standard blue suite and white tie uniform.
Following the client’s dress code
I do remember some exceptions. While at Ernst & Young, I had a client whose dress code was strictly casual. They told us that if we showed up in anything dressier than jeans they would send us home. They didn’t want us to stick out as consultants. I was happy to comply. As the consulting firms continued to require their consultants to stick to their own formal dress code at the client, they began running in to the same issue with clients. The consultants stuck out too much on casual Fridays and were perpetuating their reputation of aloofness. The firms began to get pressure from client management to fit in a little more.
The economy also played a role. As the economy improved, business got better and consulting firms needed to keep expanding their workforce. Retention became an issue. Salaries and bonuses increased, work-life balance became a familiar term and the firms began instituting casual Fridays if the client followed the same policy or if you weren’t client-facing on that day.
A slipper slope on the consulting dress code
Understandably, they didn’t want the relaxation of the rules to become a slippery slope. But it was the subject of some now-humorous debate that reminds me of when Congress held hearings in the 1960s on whether the Kingsmen song “Louie Louie” was somehow harmful to our American youth. Some of the debates that stick in my mind were:
- Whether it was appropriate for women to wear “skorts”, those pleated shorts that flared out to look like a skirt.
- Whether it was too casual for men to wear dress shoes with tassels.
- Should women be allowed to wear pant suits (Hilary Clinton helped settle that one)?
This was a major renaissance for consulting firm policy. Suddenly, rules were lightening up and people began to push the envelope. There was almost too much ambiguity to set hard and fast rules. Many places began listing clothing that was not acceptable. (Really? Shorts and flip-flops aren’t allowed?) One of the hardest rules for firms to let go was the denim policy. There was often a strict rule that even if the client wore jeans, consultants were strictly prohibited from wearing this appalling garment.
I remember my boss back then, a partner in the firm, advising that we should observe how their employees dress and target dressing just a notch above that. If all else fails, try to emulate how the client’s executives dress.
More formal or more productive?
I never quite understood the debate. I always thought that if you were more comfortable, you would be more productive. But I also knew people who felt that the suit created a formality that caused people to be more focused. The analogy was of two kids baseball teams. One team wore whatever they had; tee-shirts, jeans and whatever, while the other team was decked out in matching uniforms. It made them feel like a more cohesive team and perhaps gave them a psychological drive to perform better.
Today, dress codes are across the board. There are still clients that require suits and ties five days a week, some have casual attire all week. Some allow jeans on Friday, some all week. I actually heard of an IT shop whose policy was “If you won’t get arrested for wearing it in public, it’s OK”. I was recently at a Friday meeting at an organization whose policy allowed jeans on Friday. There were some consultants from Boston Consulting Group in attendance. They actually wore jeans with the un-tucked shirt look! Holy Cow! BCGers were that casual at a client site?
The fact is, they looked nice. And like my old boss’s advice, they were still dressed a notch (or two) above the client’s employees that day. I tell new consultants to follow the “one notch above” rule. If there is ever any doubt, where a suit and tie. You can always take off the jacket and tie and be business casual for the remainder of the day.
What faux pas have you experienced in dressing for a client or business situation?
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.