International Business Dress Code Survey Reveals Startling Result

According to the recent Ipsos/Reuters survey conducted in 24 countries around the world, there is considerable disagreement about business dress codes. That's not to say workplace attire is an international hot potato with daily conference calls between Brussels and Singapore thrashing out the pros and cons of polo shirts. But, the very fact that Ispos, one of the world's leading market research firms, organized this survey speaks volumes about the magnitude of dress code issues.

I'm not surprised. I deal with matters related to business-appropriate apparel on a daily basis. Perhaps more to the point is that this took so long to surface. Some of the survey results were startling, to put it mildly, but I'll get to them later. The report, officially entitled "Ipsos Global @dvisory: Proper Attire in the Workplace," explores what people around the world are wearing to work and rates the acceptance level, or inappropriateness, of specific garments. As I scanned the various polls that comprise the survey, it occurred to me that at its absolute core, Casual Friday could be the demon behind the current confusion, in Canada and in the United States.

Europeans, I have always believed, are upstanding, solid citizens in matters related to collars and ties. They wrote the book when it comes to professional demeanor. Same goes for South America and Asia. On the other hand, we know back in the 80's, Silicone Valley's dotcom lifestyle created a khaki-culture workplace, ultimately resulting in North America's widespread observance of Casual Friday. But who knew the rest of the world shared a taste for laid-back clothing? It seems to me that the very existence of this study points to an easing up of dress codes - everywhere!

We can't, however, place all the blame on those early dotcomers. Around here, summertime seems to be the real culprit when it comes to ultra-casual clothing. I'm not so certain that the seasonal infractions routinely filling my inbox are confined to Fridays. For example, décolleté, despite often Arctic-like A/C, probably tops the list of women's offences. Yet without a doubt, the most widespread complaints during hot weather months - for both men and women - are shorts and flip-flops. These beach buddies are the real burning issues.

Imagine my surprise when they both showed up on the Ipsos report. This is exactly what I mean about a universal dress code direction verging on non-existent. I'm not suggesting, on any level, that the poll results conclusively support abandoning traditional business apparel. I'm simply reading between the lines and pointing out that the very appearance of shorts and flip-flops on a business-attire survey tells the real story. Everyone everywhere wants to relax. Or do they?

Let's get down to the report's nitty-gritty. When it comes to interpretation, the shorts data presents a particularly interesting challenge. It makes sense that almost half the Australians polled judged shorts in the workplace appropriate. After all, it's hot Down Under. But Indonesia, only a hop, skip and a short plane ride away from Oz, is even hotter and yet only 5% of this survey group approved of shorts. Let's explore the stats a little further. It's coolish up in the land of fjords and midnight sun but the Swedes showed the same level of approval for shorts, as the Aussies. Hungary was the real surprise as the world's greatest supporter of short pants at work!

I can't say with any certainty that the citizens of Budapest represented the 46% short-support-group, but I can hazard a guess that it was these same folks who gave flip-flops wide approval. Over 50% of Hungarians polled endorsed flip-flops for business. And once again, Indonesia trailed at the bottom of the pack. You won't find either shorts or flip-flops in the boardrooms of the archipelago.

Here at home, Canadians and Americans, although polled separately, were in general agreement with about 30% in favour of shorts but fewer than 20% for flip-flops. (As a sidebar to this footwear phenomenon, I guess the old "socks with sandals" faux pas no longer poses a threat.) Ultimately, when the results from all 24 countries were tallied, both the flip-flops and shorts categories received an almost 25% approval rating.

But here comes a curveball. When these very same people - all employed adults - were asked if their most casually dressed co-workers qualified for promotion to senior management, almost 40% ticked the "No" box. It's as though they're saying; "Sure, go ahead. Wear whatever you want but don't expect to move up the ladder!"

A spin-off of this is the fact that two-thirds of the over 12,000 people participating in the survey agreed that: "Senior Managers/People That Run An Organization Should Always be More Dressed Up Than Their Employees." Clearly, this points to an expectation that both aspiring and existing leaders have a responsibility to maintain high standards when it comes to personal appearance.

Here comes another curve ball. The majority of participants approved "Bikinis/Speedos" for work-sponsored beach outings. Once again, it was the Hungarians by a mile, with almost 90% in favour of scanty beach wear. Not surprisingly, Argentina trailed closely behind but those surfing Aussies weighed in at only 60%. Here, on the home front, a comparative sense of modesty rules. Only about a third of the Canadians approved this minimalist approach.

Ultimately, what intrigued me was the diversity and magnitude of the report. I know we've come a hundred miles from the dark days when Casual Friday was in its infancy and some folks confused "dressing down" with sloppy carelessness. There's no question that business casual is constantly evolving but I for one, am greatly relieved to feel a touch of fall in the air. All those troublesome shorts and flip-flops will soon be tucked away.

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