Goldman Sachs’ new “flexible” dress code is not as easygoing as it sounds

Buttonhole optional.
Buttonhole optional.
Image: REUTERS/Kevin Coombs
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Just as firefighters and postal workers have uniforms, bankers seem to have a go-to outfit, often involving suits and ties. But within the walls of America’s fifth-largest bank, this prescriptive dress code may no longer be the norm.

In a memo sent to Goldman Sachs’ 36,000 employees today (March 5), staff were informed that the firm would be moving to a “flexible dress code” in recognition of the fact that workplaces everywhere are becoming more casual. The email from CEO David Solomon, CFO Stephen Scherr, and COO John Waldron instructed employees to dress “in a manner that is consistent” with 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,” it concludes. “All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace.”

The shift follows in the footsteps of GM’s celebrated two-word dress code: “Dress appropriately.” But while these open-minded approaches may sound intuitive, they come with downsides.

“Dress appropriately” 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).

To avoid such awkward conversations, the Harvard Business Review suggests managers be direct with members of their team right as they come on board. Even if your company’s official dress code is fluid, it’s worth taking just five minutes to talk newcomers through what is and is not appropriate, rather than expecting everyone to start on the same page.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the precise wording of GM’s two-word dress code.