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Why our firm went business casual

I recently had a business lunch with someone I had never met.

I arrived at the restaurant first and when my lunch date arrived shortly afterward, he looked for a man in a business suit sitting alone. Not finding one, he sat down to wait. Ten minutes past our scheduled time to meet, I noticed a man sitting alone at a table, impatiently looking at his watch. I approached him and asked if he was the person I was there to meet. He was startled, because I was wearing jeans and a sweater. Over lunch, I explained how our office had evolved into a casual culture.

It began when we sent out a standard-issue employee questionnaire. I expected the usual comments about more pay or enhanced benefits, but to my surprise the survey made clear that being able to dress casually was something our employees really, really wanted.

Brett Bernstein 0519

My partners and I started our careers at Merrill Lynch. We were required to wear dark suits, starched white shirts and solid ties. The professionalism that dress code exemplified was fine, but it also underscored a conformity of thinking that wasn’t so fine.

When we started XML Financial Group, we were business casual. That went for advisors and support staff, male and female. Male advisors wore button-down shirts and slacks and a collared short sleeve shirt in the summer. Sports coats were worn when appropriate. Females advisors wore skirts or trousers with blouses and/or blazers. Support staff, which happen to be all female for us, wore shirts or trousers, and blouses.

The advisors, both men and women, didn’t mind this dress code. But the support staff found the attire uncomfortable, expensive and not part of their normal wardrobe.

We subsequently relaxed the office dress to slacks and a button-down or a golf shirt in the summer months for men; sundresses, jeans and more relaxed tops and shoes or sandals for women. We thought that was enough. Our team, however, thought differently. They clearly preferred, and felt more comfortable wearing, more casual clothes all year round.

After we got the results of the survey, we implemented a casual Friday attire policy. We rolled it out thinking it was simply a nice gesture that cost us zero dollars. One day, my chief of staff told me he noticed an improvement in our team’s morale on Fridays — and it wasn’t simply because it was Friday.

A relaxed dress code has led to enhanced productivity.

He noticed the team was more upbeat on the phones. He had been receiving more positive, unsolicited comments from clients and the office had a better overall vibe. He suggested that we have that kind of casual environment every day. My partners and I agreed, but were hesitant. We didn’t want clients to think the firm’s high standards had fallen.

We updated our employee handbook. We put a blurb in our client newsletter explaining that while there’s nothing less professional about how we handle their financial situations, we’re now dressing more casually in our offices.

Our clients’ response surprised us. If you’re more comfortable then we’re more comfortable, they said. To be sure, advisors can — and do — dress up depending on the client or the meeting location. But they generally prefer a relaxed dress code and it has led to enhanced productivity.

Our employees are happier and friendlier when talking with clients. We’ve noticed less lag time when responding to emails and faster resolutions when clients have a question. And the relaxed dress code speaks to their individual personalities, rather than a more formal — and rigid — group uniform.

A hundred years ago, people played golf and attended baseball games in suits and ties. That has changed, and we think the three-piece suit mentality from Wall Street needs to change too.

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