Federal telework policies are under scrutiny, and government employees are making their way back to the office in larger numbers.
What will they be wearing when they return?
Professional dress codes were becoming more relaxed well before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in early 2020. COVID-19 made casual attire the norm, with many working remotely and wearing whatever they pleased on the job—within reason, of course.
A new survey finds that government agencies figure to keep it mostly casual from here on out, with the more rigid, buttoned-up dress codes that these entities clung to in the past have fallen decidedly out of fashion.
Federal Times recently polled approximately 600 government employees from three dozen agencies, who were asked questions about what they wear to work. Most survey respondents identified as male, had more than 20 years of federal government experience and worked in defense-related agencies, with the remainder scattered across independent agencies throughout the United States.
According to the survey, “the general consensus was that workplace dress in federal agencies has relaxed, if it even changed at all,” wrote Federal Times’ Molly Weisner, noting that very few respondents said dress codes have become more formal in the last few years.
“A few also said that society has been trending more casual for years,” Weisner wrote. “Telework may just have accelerated it.”
Deciding When to Dress it Up
Among those government employees who said their agency’s dress code has changed in recent years, most reported that sartorial standards had become more casual, “by a lot or just a little,” Weisner wrote. Common articles of clothing that federal employees reported wearing included polo shirts, khaki pants, sport coats, comfortable shoes and blouses.
In the survey, roughly 46% said their agencies still have a dress code. Just 12% reported that their government employer has maintained a dress code, even for virtual meetings, with respondents indicating that dress codes “were more akin to unenforced guidance as opposed to mandatory rules.”
For some government workers, dress requirements vary based on the situation.
For example, one civilian respondent indicated he worked at an agency where he can typically wear khaki pants or 5.11 Tactical pants with a collared shirt, tucked or untucked.
“But if we are meeting anybody external to our agency or we’re meeting with anybody in the front office, it’s definitely coat and tie,” he told Federal Times. “It’s not formalized in any sort of document. It’s just institutional knowledge that that’s the deal.”
In other agencies, employees decide on their own to dress things up when interacting with the public or with high-ranking officials within their organization.
The State Department, for example, has a mission that it says must reflect professionalism at home and abroad, “so its employees should dress in a way that honors that and protects them,” according to Federal Times.
Making Expectations Clear
Ultimately, respondents in the survey were split on the usefulness of dress codes of any kind. Some told Federal Times they felt standards have loosened up too much and are “irreverent of the soul of public service,” while urging stricter dress code requirements, Weisner wrote.
“Many more slobs and sloths,” said one respondent. “If you’re getting GS-15 pay, you really should wear socks,” another lamented.
Some survey participants reasoned that more relaxed dress codes that stress comfort would be necessary to draw younger generations of talent to the public sector.
(As Weisner pointed out, just 7% of the full-time federal workforce is under the age of 30, “and recruitment troubles have deepened the cultural differences between private and public sector work.”)
“Gen Z and forward, and some late Gen X-ers, simply won’t tolerate the formal dress codes,” said one survey participant, while also cautioning that “our leaders need to be stronger in enforcing a ‘no bar-clothes’ culture to prevent those who will abuse a more relaxed dress code, thus ruining it for the rest of us.”
Meanwhile, others expressed hope that government employers recognize that “productivity could be achieved with and without a starched collar.”
Overall, respondents seemed to agree that, wherever agencies land in terms of their dress requirements, expectations must be made clear and communicated throughout the ranks. And that the days of all business attire, all the time are largely in the past.
“It will never go back to the way it was before COVID,” Kevin Kampschroer, an employee with the General Services Administration, told Federal Times. “The only prediction I’m willing to be absolutely certain about is it will not be the same.”
07 June 2023
HR News Article