Dress to Impress

January 4th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

UBS implements a strict, 43-page style code for its employees, but is it too much?

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The Responsibility Project

A new, 43-page style code implemented by Swiss bank UBS AG for its retail banking staff goes far beyond basic grooming tips. The rules, which include hygiene and grooming tips that the Wall Street Journal describes as being “dotted with aphorisms worthy of fashion and beauty magazines,” include such tips as touching up hair re-growth if you color your hair, not eating onions or garlic, not smoking or spending time in smoke-filled places, not wearing short-sleeved shirts or cufflinks, and storing suits on hangers with rounded shoulders to preserve the shape of the jacket.  

According to the WSJ article, the move is part of a test the bank is carrying out across five pilot branches, aimed at mending relations with clients and re-establishing confidence in the brand by impressing customers with the staff’s polished appearances.

Some tips, such as not allowing your underwear to show, make basic sense in the workplace, but some pundits say other rules, such as not “using tie knots that don’t match your face shape and/or body shape,” may press the limits of what a corporation can dictate to its employees. Style-focused websites such as stylite.com are buzzing about the “Draconian and totally anti-personal style” rules, pointing out examples of overkill such as the fact that “Women are allowed exactly seven jewels…they can’t wear new shoes, and their skirts should hit the middle of the knee exactly.”  (Though the rules discourage men from wearing jewelry at all, they are encouraged to wear timepieces, since wristwatches suggest "reliability and great care for punctuality" – just in case you had forgotten that this was a code written by a Swiss company.)

One article, reminding readers that UBS was forced to pay $780 million in 2009 to avoid U.S. prosecution and settle allegations of allowing rich Americans to evade taxes in their Swiss bank accounts, says this new code will ensure that the bank “stays a laughing stock” for the new dress code after being “pinged” for helping tax evaders.

UBS spokesman Jean-Raphael Fontannaz told the WSJ that the company acknowledged its new code may seem “in line with Swiss precision,” but said that the guidelines were originally set up for temps who may be new to a banking environment, and even if the code were enforced in all of its Swiss branches, “only around 1,500 [employees] would be affected, less than ten percent of our staff in Switzerland.”

WSJ’s “The Source” blog calls the guidelines “one of the most sought-after documents on the Internet after the WikiLeaks cables,” but also concedes the code is a good idea.  (You can download a French version of the guide here, provided to Huffington Post by John Carney at CNBC’s NetNet.) “Scruffily attired people may be perceived as lackadaisical, even if their resume sports stellar qualifications….” the blog’s author, Elena Berton, says. “Maybe it’s time for job seekers and disgruntled employees alike to take a cue from UBS’s Swiss finishing school guidelines and get reacquainted with shoe polish.”

For my part, I worked at Lehman Brothers in the 1990s when it first instituted the concept of “Casual Fridays” – a generous-sounding but ultimately confusing concession to employees, who, as I remember, would rather not have had to give new thought to their work costumes. Most ultimately resorted to an uncreative uniform of khaki pants and blue button-down shirts, since the Casual Friday rules – across investment banks of the day – were fraught with opportunity for messing up.

Does your workplace have a code, and is it formal…or “understood”? Think the new UBS code is overkill or a good idea? Let us know.