What You Can Learn From a 43-Page Dress Code

There are few absolutes in HR.

In fact, there are many contextual clues in organizations that make it almost impossible to say that any policy is totally off limits. I think we’ve found an exception to that though: Swiss bank UBS’s 43-page dress code. Here’s what The Wall Street Journal mentions:

Echoing rules applied at Swiss boarding schools, UBS’s guidelines go beyond a list of dress “do’s” and “don’ts” by providing hygiene and grooming tips often dotted with aphorisms worthy of fashion and beauty magazines.

The move is part of a test UBS is carrying out in Switzerland across five pilot branches. It follows a recent advertising campaign aimed at re-establishing confidence in the Swiss bank’s brand and mending relations with clients.

Well, 43 pages is about 42 pages too long.

Dress codes: different for bankers, especially Swiss bankers

Of course, I hate dress codes. And while I try to avoid reading the comments on major news sites, I had to take a peek at these simply because they were about dress codes (always a hot topic) and from The Wall Street Journal‘s typical readership (older, white, conservative and male, if I have my demographics right).

Not surprisingly, most loved it. Many people simply believe that workplace dress standards have fallen in the U.S. and it is nice that a company has decided to try to reverse it. While I don’t think it is important that dress standards have fallen sharply (especially in non-customer facing white collar roles), there is still a bit of a double standard within my own mind.

If I had a briefcase full of cash that I took into a Swiss bank for deposit, I wouldn’t be handing it over to a guy with a tank top and a ZZ Top beard. While I can logically convince myself that appearance really doesn’t matter, in some circumstances though, it really is quite important.

Policy vs. Education vs. Overboard

Even if I agree with what UBS is doing, I simply cannot stand the way they executed it.

I’ve advocated in the past that employers should focus on education instead of writing and enforcing policy. The policy serves as the basic “What you need to do” and the education serving the “How and why.” We in HR often focus on the “what” at the exclusion at the “how” and “why.” And UBS had a brilliant plan for this (at least at the idea stage): combine the policy into the education.

While it sounds like a decent idea, in theory, the execution of the document left a lot to be desired. And while the original document was written in French, a translated version (done by Google Translate) is available here:

Translated Version of UBS Dress Code Document

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What was a pretty good idea was crushed under the weight of 43 pages of policy peppered with information, pictures, and some condescending words about body odor. It’s longer than it deserves to be and ordered in a way that isn’t conducive to getting quick information about the policy.

Part of the problem is that you have to really read through your section to figure out what is and isn’t allowed. If you think it is simple to ask employees to read through an entire handbook (much less what the 43-page dress code section says about their other policy handbook), you haven’t experienced HR.

There is a way to do this that makes sense, though.

1. Put what you should wear at the front of the handbook

The very first thing they should have is what to wear to work. That’s the policy portion of the handbook and is the most important part. If you have a background in banking or finance, you probably get it. So you want to know if you can wear your brown leather belt (you can’t)?  In hoping that you’re doing most of your hiring from people with prior experience, you can be reasonably assured that they will read that first part and be satisfied with it.

2. Use pictures that actually demonstrate something

The original handbook has pictures of various types of clothing, shoes, and accessories, but it never brings it all together. What, if after your barebones explanation about what people should wear, you had a picture of a male and female model demonstrating the UBS look? They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and perhaps in this case, it could save a few thousand unnecessary ones.

3. Give less “why” and more “how”

I’m guessing most people understand that odor is important in the workplace, so spending a paragraph explaining it is a bit unnecessary. That being said, focusing on the “how” could be important. For example, their illustrations about tying a tie different ways is handy. If I wanted to tie a Full Windsor, I’d definitely have to look it up first.

What do you think? Have dress standards in the American workplace deteriorated? Do you agree with what UBS is doing? And do you think this handbook was the best way to go about it?

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.