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Article by Mohan Babu


Working Abroad - Techies change their dress code

The slowdown has brought about a significant change in the dress code of techies as casuals are replaced by formal wear. Apart from looking different, better clothes now also symbolise that one is feeling better, writes MOHAN BABU

Slowdown in the high-tech sector has had an impact on one unexpected area—the attire worn by techies. The “informal dress-down culture” that swept across America during the nineties, spearheaded by the Silicon Valley “bring your dog to work” culture, is slowly leading to the advent of formal attires at technology companies and departments. This change from informal to formal is due to several reasons. In a sluggish market, techies are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their peers and what better way to do it than to look different, literally? Of course, during a slow economy, dressing-up a notch is also a way to signal to one’s peers and colleagues that one feels better by dressing better.

The origin of the “well-dressed” techie goes back to the white-shirt-and-formal-suited IBMers of the seventies and eighties. In his recent book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dan-ce? Louis Gerstner talks about the changing dress code: “It was well-known throughout business circles that IBM salespeople wore very formal business attire. Tom Watson established that rule when IBM was calling on corporate executives who wore dark suits and white shirts. ...Watson’s direction was: Respect your customer, and dress accordingly. However, as the years went by, customers changed how they dressed at work, and few of the technical buyers in corporations showed up in white and blue. However, Watson’s sensible connection to the customer was forgotten and the dress code marched on.”

Now that we are seeing another shift in the business world from informal to a more button-down culture, the techies are trying to keep pace. During the nineties, technical departments, even at regular companies operated as “independent” units with their own sub-cultures. This was because the market was so “hot” that companies tried especially hard to manage and retain their technical folks, even if it meant providing them special perks that other departments and employees in the company were not entitled to.

When it comes to business attire in the consulting world, there are perhaps two schools of thought: the first approach, followed by most consultancies, is the “in Rome, do as Romans do” model. The other is the IBM-like “uniform culture” where regardless of local client culture; consultants follow their own firm’s dress code. Some companies, notably the Big Five consulting houses, have long maintained their own standardised dress culture, regardless of the clients they serve. In a recent assignment at Agilent, it was interesting to note that the only

people in business casuals (Dockers, dress shirts/polos) were the Deloitte Consulting folks. All other people, including Agilent employees, were in a totally dress-down mode wearing jeans, shorts, flip-flops and everything else in between. Since the project was being managed by Deloitte, it made sense for them to stand out from others and in a way, their standardised attire helped them achieve this!

Indian techies have traditionally been conservative when it comes to dressing. Many Indian companies regularly expect and entertain client visitors, and so have their techies dress up a notch most of the time.

Dress code management becomes more complicated when one starts discussing women’s attire. In India, workingwomen alternate between sarees and salwar kameeze; the “formal” being the saree. However, the question then arises, do lady consultants at a client location dress in a saree or would it be seen as too “foreign?” Indian women in American offices have taken a more “in Rome do as Romans do” attitude, dressing in formal western or informal western clothes, depending on the location and local dress cultures with an occasional attire of saree or salwar kameeze to add colour (pun intended). And this model seems to be working fairly well. It is the Indian men who sometimes seem to get confused and are torn between their official company policy and the local attires worn by colleagues at client locations.

The arrival of multinationals, especially American giants and software companies, spelt the importation of the informal culture in India, at least at their subsidiaries. Given that there is no right or wrong way to create and manage a dress code, most Indian companies try to take a laissez faire attitude towards dress code, focusing more on work on hand and creating and maintaining morale. For instance, British companies regularly follow a tie-and-jacket standard all through the year. However, most American companies take a middle ground by expecting a business casual. Also, since Indian companies regularly deal with organisations from many countries, it becomes difficult to customise a dress-code for each individual country/client. Uniform dress culture is the way out.




About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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