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Jeans and flip-flops at work? Generations collide as dress codes relax

Nov. 4, 2012 - 04:36PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Suits, ties and dress shoes are giving way to jeans and sneakers - and in some cases even flip-flops - in many government offices.
Suits, ties and dress shoes are giving way to jeans and sneakers - and in some cases even flip-flops - in many government offices. (Gannett Government Media Corp)

Suits, ties and dress shoes are giving way to jeans and sneakers — and in some cases even flip-flops — in many government offices.

Employees collaborate in a relaxed atmosphere — no suit or tie required — in the basement innovation lab at Office of Personnel Management headquarters in Washington, for example.

The relaxed atmosphere — in the area of open spaces, couches and white boards — and liberal dress code encourage productivity and creative thinking, said Charletta McNeil, president of American Federation of Government Employees Union Local 32 at OPM. The union worked with OPM to set up the space.

“Once you are in that environment, it’s not about dressing up, it’s about dressing down and allowing the creativity to flow,” McNeil said.

Dress codes across the government are relaxing as the older generation’s ideas of proper office attire make way for the styles of the younger feds entering the workforce, according to employees, experts and agency documents.

The transition is accelerated by the lack of a universal dress code across government — agencies, departments and individual officers can set their own standards for acceptable office attire.

Gary Wagner, a public affairs officer at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren in Virginia, has watched standard work attire become more relaxed over the 38 years he has been in the government.

“A few decades ago, you might have seen more neckties versus open collars, and more skirts versus slacks,” Wagner said.

But, he added, most federal employees are conscientious about maintaining a professional appearance on the job, even if the perception of what’s professional has have evolved.

Jason Dorsey, author of several books on generational change and chief strategy officer at the Center for Generational Kinetics, which consults with agencies such as the Army on predicting generational trends, agreed that younger federal employees have a more casual approach to work.

Terms such as “business casual” or “professional attire” in dress policies mean different things for different people, he said.

“It’s a huge point of conflict between generations,” Dorsey said. “Just like every generation has before them, [younger feds] bring a new style and attitude.”

Federal office attire will continue to relax because younger employees believe less in dress codes and more in the value of the work they produce, he said.

Lynnie Martin, director for public relations at Young Government Leaders, said surveys of its membership support Dorsey’s claim.

“The final product — thoroughly researched, on time and creatively presented — is more important than what the employee was wearing on an average day that he or she was working on it,” Martin said.

Younger federal employees are more open to relaxed dress codes, just as they are more open to telework and mobile work, than older federal workers.

“Professional appearance definitely has its time and place, but today’s young leaders feel that their work makes a bigger statement than what clothes they wear,” Martin said.

Peter Winch, acting director of AFGE’s field services and education department, said that unions do not have the leeway to bargain on dress codes unless agencies decide to.

He said a dress code AFGE negotiated on behalf of civilian employees at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland forbids flip-flops or “beach wear” but allows jeans — as long as the jeans have no holes.

He said dress codes have been getting less strict over the last 20 years. “There has definitely been a shift in attitudes,” he said.

Most disputes over dress code are resolved between the manager and the employee and rarely rise to the level of arbitration, he said.

When there are disputes that require intervention, most are handled by the Federal Labor Relations Authority’s Federal Service Impasses Panel.

In 2008, the Veterans Affairs Department attempted to revise the dress code at James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Knoxville, Tenn., to prohibit employees from wearing blue jeans except on a designated monthly casual day.

The Federal Service Impasses Panel ruled against the agency in July — after four years — and said employees could wear blue jeans unless they left the facility on agency business.

Gene Seiler, a 62-year-old contract auditor at the Defense Contract Audit Agency, said it was only a matter of time before federal office wear became less formal to match the private sector.

He said he sees fewer employees wearing ties and more wearing short-sleeve polo shirts, but he still prefers to wear more formal attire at work.

Felicia Rowland, an employee at the Forest Service for more than 30 years, said the dress code has gotten too lax. She said she has seen more employees wearing shorts and flip-flops at work and more people wearing what she called “semi-casual” clothing.

“It would be great if in the welcome package, they would have some guidelines on what and what not to wear and then implement a new dress code across the board for all employees,” Rowland said.

Many agencies take a hands-off approach and allow individual managers to determine whether employees are dressed appropriately.

The Social Security Administration does not have an official dress code but “expects employees to dress in a manner that is similar to other workers in their community,” according to spokeswoman Kia Green Anderson.

The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Public Debt also does not have a dress code, according to spokeswoman Mckayla Braden. But every summer the agency reminds its employees to dress appropriately and avoid flip-flops, shorts and pajamas.

“While we do not personally meet face to face with the public, we would like employees to dress appropriately,” Braden said.

One federal employee who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said her field office allows flip-flops in the summer unless the office is expecting visitors.

That policy is less strict than the agency’s headquarters office in Washington, but it hasn’t hurt productivity, she said.

“We have enough stress in our work environment with an overly cramped office and overwhelming workloads without having to conform to someone else’s expectations of a dress code designed for a more public and politically stiff office environment,” she said.

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