Big 4 PwC ditches formal dress code for staff in Australia

17 June 2016

PwC Australia has ditched its formal dress code, to be replaced by staff judgement in relation to their work situation. The move aims to increase its draw for millennials, as well as provide its staff with more scope to interact with high value business that may not deem suits necessary. A side benefit is a boon for women on their feet.

PwC recently, and potentially inadvertently, found itself in the spotlight after Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist at the firm in the UK, was sent home without pay for refusing to wear 2 inch to 4 inch high heels. Thorp, hired by outsource vendor Portico, was allegedly laughed at by the company when she claimed that the demand was discriminatory; telling her to either buy the required footwear or go home.

Thorp stepped to the media, explaining that “If you can give me a reason as to why wearing flats would impair me to do my job today, then fair enough, but they couldn’t. I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. I said I just won’t be able to do that in heels. Apart from the debilitating factor, it’s the sexism issue. I think companies shouldn’t be forcing that on their female employees.” She launched a formal petition, and the matter was even discussed by the UK parliament after receiving more than 145,000 signatories.

The UK news regarding the treatment of staff, whether employed directly or through an outsourcing agreement, has, among others, compelled PwC in Australia to say goodbye to antiquated dress codes, to be replaced by ‘situational dressing’.

PwC ditches formal dress code for staff in Australia

Situational dressing
A dress culture, underpinned by a dress code, provides guarantees for organisations that their staff, when meeting clients that themselves have certain expectations, meet those expectations. Looking good, as well as being good, has also been correlated with increased levels of trust from management consulting clients. In a world in which trust, and believability are key, being well dressed remains important.

Like many of its global counterparts, PwC Australia requires its staff to turn up for a day of hard work, in a “modern professional” look of suits for men and women, and tailored dresses for women. The requirements are relatively specific, with the general attire associated with business, a suit and formal shoes, the basic requirement – although, given their stature, an expensive suite. The requirement for women to wear “business-style shoes or boots”, which often equated to heels was also regulated for.

In recent years, trends are moving employers, which tend to require their staff to exude a high degree of formality, away from the limits of business attire, often under pressure from staff themselves or external forces. These include the likes of Thorp’s stance against impractical and sexist requirements regarding footwear, as well as the changing expectations from millennials and those from clients. Such factors, and more, have incited the Australian arm of PwC to drop its formal dress code.

The replacement dress code asks its staff to use their own judgement regarding what befits the various situations they may find themselves in, whether being client facing, a day at the office, or working with startups. The variation of expectations in different contexts – startups for instance tend to have a more informal culture in which a suit might cause friction – provides PwC staff with the possibility of better fitting in, says the firm, now that the situational dressing code is in place. PwC’s staff in Australia also increasingly includes Millennials, whose mindset is less focused on appearances, especially if that appearance implicitly contains sexist or derogatory requirements, or impractical expectations. In the case of wearing high heels, their impracticality is found in a range of everyday situations. "It’s not a dress up or dress down policy – all we are asking our people to do is think about what they are doing each day, who they are doing it with, and dress in a way that reflects that," says Sue Horlin, Human Capital Leader at PwC Australia.

The PwC staff in Australia are now required to use their own judgement for dressing. Horlin further adds "We trust our people to use their judgement and common sense, and we firmly believe this small but symbolic gesture will help people be more comfortable, more confident and therefore deliver fantastic service to our clients." For PwC, the firm believes the move will help it win the talent war. "The reality is we are in a war for talent and we want the same creative, innovative and diverse people that all the other companies are chasing,” says Horlin. “We think this change will help us do that."