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Published March 19 2011

Relaxed fit: Local businesses ease dress codes to meet changing workplace demands

Kim Shuckhart is no stranger to sartorial turmoil in the workplace.

The head of human resources at Gate City Bank remembers a previous employer who insisted she wear a skirt instead of a pantsuit. She remembers the days when jeans were strictly verboten – casual days be darned.

But when the bank announced two years ago that women were free to forego hosiery, even she was surprised by the response: a barrage of thank-yous that hailed her as some kind of liberator.

“I could have implemented a new benefit and I would have gotten less phone calls,” she said.

In the grand scheme of Gate City’s still-conservative dress code, it was a small concession – the company still requires dress shirts, ties, and reasonable hair colors. But it was a sign that even traditionally buttoned-down employers were yielding ground to a society that’s increasingly nonchalant about the strictures of professional attire.

For Shuckhart, who grew up in a banking family and remembers seeing her father head off to work in a suit each day, the gradual slackening of standards has been disconcerting at times – the idea of business casual Fridays was difficult for her, she says. But she also acknowledges the bank’s younger employees and customers have very different expectations.

“We’re really catering to our younger generation,” she said. “Does a 20-year-old really want to wear a suit?” She said the adjustments help ease the transition for younger employees who are far removed from the days when high school and college students dressed up to go to class.

She also questioned whether customers still expect bankers to don the uniform formalwear that was once the norm. “Maybe their expectation isn’t as high either,” she said.

LuAnn White, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Association of Realtors and a Coldwell Banker Realtor, recalls the emphasis on dress in her training when she first entered the industry a little more than a decade ago. “You should always be the best-dressed person in the room,” a teacher told her. Suits, dresses, high heels and nylons ruled the day.

Now, she says, “I don’t know if our professional status is determined by dress as much as it once was,” she said. “I don’t think we dress as formally as when I first entered the business.”

And it’s not just a business phenomenon, she said: “I think society has dressed down. How many times do you even see people going to church in a suit and tie? You rarely see that anymore. I think society has given us permission, so to speak.”

The shirt and tie might give way to a polo shirt with the company logo on it. When White is meeting with younger clients – first-time homebuyers, perhaps – she might dress down to make them more comfortable.

At Sundog marketing in Fargo, meanwhile, the days of suited-up, ultra-snappy ad executives – the ones you might see on AMC’s “Mad Men,” for instance – are a thing of the past. Don Draper may favor his scotch and collar stays; at Sundog, it’s more likely to be wine and jeans.

With staff both behind the scenes and in front of clients, norms vary widely within the company, said Ron Lee, head of client services. Sundog doesn’t devote much ink to spelling out what’s required: The dress code consists of a paragraph in the handbook that essentially reminds employees they represent the company.

Lee said employees are good at figuring the rest out for themselves.

“I don’t think you’ll find anybody here who would appear on TLC’s ‘What Not to Wear,’ ” he said.

That doesn’t mean employees don’t step it up a notch when the occasion calls for it. “If we’ve got a client meeting, it’s very normal that we’ll dress up, he said – particularly a client in a formal-minded industry like financial services.

Once in a while, he said, those efforts will prove to be overkill: Sundog employees will show up in slacks to meet a client who wore jeans.

It doesn’t hurt that Sundog co-founder and chief executive Brent Teiken got his start at Great Plains Software in an industry with a reputation for less-than-stringent dress requirements.

Those relaxed standards have carried over to Microsoft in Fargo.

Communications manager Katie Hasbargen said, “You’ll see everything from shorts and tennis shoes to business casual” on campus.

She said that’s the norm in the technology industry.

“The idea is they want people to be comfortable; they want people to be creative,” she said. “It’s a perk; it’s a benefit.”

Employees may dress up to match client attire, she said – particularly in Microsoft’s European offices, where standards may be different. But within the confines of Microsoft offices, formalwear is a rarity. She said that’s been the case as long as she’s been with the company (her time dates back to the Great Plains era) and holds true regardless of department.

When Hasbargen set out to track down a copy of the dress code that governs the company’s 900 local employees, she realized one did not exist.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502