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Should accountants dress to intimidate?

16th May 2019
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Philip Fisher revisits the dress-down debate in the profession and asks: can clients can really take an accountant seriously if they're not suited and booted? 

A couple of weeks ago, this column caused unlikely controversy when it raised the relatively innocent question of whether accountants still needed to wear formal clothing.

Some of the responses were frankly insulting, suggesting that no accountant had worn a suit in the last 15 years. By way of contrast, others still stick to their traditional guns and turn up at the office every day looking “smart” regardless of whether they expect to meet clients or not.

As it happens, the writer hates wearing suits and ties and will only do so when he considers such garb to be an absolute necessity.

The question this time surrounds what constitutes that absolute necessity. In particular, one of the respondents hinted that some of the problems the profession is currently facing around auditing relate to slovenliness and doubted whether clients take professionals as seriously as they should.

The key here is context. Many of us may well have come to the conclusion that if we are doing nothing more than sitting at a desk ploughing through e-mails or reviewing accounts/tax returns this could be done in pyjamas at home (to quote a friend who runs his own practice) or jeans and a T-shirt in the office.

That may well be valid, although partners could struggle to distinguish themselves from junior staff if all present sport Kermit the Frog t-shirts and ripped jeans. Before anyone makes the point, this could apply equally if everyone in the office is wearing a suit.

The more interesting point relates to perceived authority. It is very clear from recent high-profile disasters attaching to the profession and ensuing media reports that there is a lack of faith in auditors’ ability to do their jobs adequately.

As was suggested by the respondent to the earlier column, some accountants may not be taken as seriously as in the past as a direct result of dressing down. To be more precise, another respondent suggested that if accountants turn up at clients’ offices wearing suits they will intimidate members of staff. Isn’t that the point? If you are a gamekeeper, you’re supposed to scare poachers, not merely crack jokes with them.

What I like to think of as our peers seem to have come to a very different conclusion from so many in the profession.

A friend who is a judge is expected to wear sober suits, robes, and even a wig when he goes about his business. This is to show a level of gravitas appropriate to the duties that he is expected to carry out.

Similarly, if you happen to have the good fortune to spot one of the few police officers still left after the latest set of cuts, unlike their imitators in bad TV dramas, they are likely to be dressed in recognisable uniforms, not to mention driving cars that instantly identify their role in society.

Bringing things just a little bit closer to home, I have yet to meet an HMRC officer not wearing business attire. Without this dress code, the respect that they need might drain away.

In each of these cases, although it may be more subconscious than anything else, they are dressed to intimidate and it usually has the desired effect.

Replies (22)

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By Wisey
16th May 2019 15:15

I used to work at a practice where we were told we had to dress in accordance with a well know high street chain's view of "business attire" this effectively banned dresses for female staff (or male for that matter) and had everyone in two piece.
clothing isn't why the profession is going down the pan, lack of thinking for oneself is the reason. i work with people in their 20s-40s who see something unknown and quickly fling it at someone else rather than do even the most rudimentary research.

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Lone Wolf
By Lone_Wolf
16th May 2019 15:44

Thanks Philip! I took your advice about appearing intimidating and dressed as Michael Myers for a meeting with one of my elderly clients and it's gone horribly wrong...

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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
16th May 2019 16:42

It goes a bit further than this and is much more straightforward and poss easier for a woman. At a networking event I attended recently the presenter was a lady who had set up her own business as an image consultant for House of Colour.
Her mantra is that you are judged within the first 7 seconds of meeting someone. How you are dressed gives an immediate impression.
Even the colour you wear indicates your style, manner, work ethic.
My photo on this site was taken at that networking event (all ladies I hasten to add) and the accountants and solicitors all wore suits.
I would suggest that it depends on your role in the accounting firm.

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Della Hudson FCA
By Della Hudson
17th May 2019 07:55

I want to help my clients which means making them feel comfortable enough to open up about the problems in their business, to believe that I understand where they’re coming from, and to then listen to my advice. This usually means wearing something similar to my client so that the relationship is more equal. They are, of course, experts in their own field.

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Replying to HudsonCo:
By Patata4g
23rd May 2019 11:04

I agree with Della, as is often the case - ' This usually means wearing something similar to my client so that the relationship is more equal. '

This article, that originally appeared in Accounting Technician magazine goes into more detail.

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By Goffey
17th May 2019 08:38

I still follow the advice from the senior partner at the first firm I worked for. 'You dress one level higher than what you expect your client to.' This way they give you respect, yet feel at home. It does cause a problem if you are visiting a dapper pensioner then a builder!

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Replying to Goffey:
Lone Wolf
By Lone_Wolf
17th May 2019 09:11

I do wonder what the different level of dress are.

Did he have like a flow chart or a pyramid to show what should be worn for different clients?

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Replying to Lone_Wolf:
By bendybod
17th May 2019 12:15

My different levels are normally with or without a jacket! My normal business attire in the office is a pair of black trousers (or a skirt) and a reasonably smart top or, occasionally in the summer, a smart dress. If I am going to a particular client or one comes in for a meeting then I might throw my jacket on but it would depend upon the client. If it was a potential new client then definitely for the first meeting.

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
17th May 2019 09:15

If your idea of being as partner is the need to intimidate your staff through expensive tailoring, then I have to feel for your staff.

You ought to be out thinking them, and be a font of knowledge, not some old confused bloke in a suit.

If that's all you got, suggest you look at retirement.

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By Swedish Chef
17th May 2019 10:42

Personally, I couldn't care less - providing the ladies don't wear those spangly flip flops that they purport to be shoes.

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Replying to Swedish Chef:
By Mrs_G
17th May 2019 11:00

Swedish Chef - we can do better than that!
We ladies all walk around without shoes in the office - me, the MD included. The office is carpeted and it's so liberating :)

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Replying to Mrs_G:
By Swedish Chef
17th May 2019 11:15

Urgh - that's even worse!

Don't blame me when I accidentally run over your foot!

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By Balancing
17th May 2019 10:45

Dressing to intimidate - I am horrified by this suggestion.

People are not how they dress and, to be honest, from my experience, I have come to see that more dodgy characters wear suits than wear hoodies and have tattoos.

Sorry to offend anyone but it is who you are and what you do that is important. Integrity not intimidation.

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By mkowl
17th May 2019 10:54

Jeans and t shirt in the office
Smart casual if going to certain clients
Slightly more smarter for others

Not worn a tie other than to funerals for 10 years

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By Vaughan Blake1
17th May 2019 10:54

I have happily worn a suit most working days for the last 40+ years. It means that the most difficult decision in the morning is "blue, grey or black". I always thought it was way more tricky for the ladies, unless they stuck to the 'business suit' route.

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Replying to Vaughan Blake1:
paddle steamer
19th May 2019 18:44

What about the tie choice difficulties though- when I wore them regularly I tended to go for the ones without the mayo stains, but colour, stripe, paisley etc-decisions, decisions.

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Small vinyl model of a smiling cat wearing a white cactus costume with neon thorns
By Cactuscat
17th May 2019 10:55

I'm an accountant in business - specifically, the arts - rather than practice, so I choose not to spend every day suited and booted for exactly this reason; I don't *want* to intimidate the people I'm business partnering. My style of dress is matched to theirs to emphasise that "one of the team" feel, which makes it far easier to get people to do what I ask them to do.

Interesting point about audit - I'm not sure that the suit helps with taking some of our auditors seriously. All the juniors look like they've borrowed a parent's.

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By tedbuck
17th May 2019 11:25

Surely it is not a case of intimidating but giving the client confidence in the person to whom he/she is talking. Psychologically I should have thought that it is easier to respect and believe in someone who is reasonably well dressed rather than someone in jeans and T shirt.

After all look at what happened to politics when Blair lowered the standard by not wearing a tie and Cameron soon followed to be 'one of the lads'. Now look at what we have got as politicians. It takes a lot to unite more than half the population against you and it comes down to lack of trust.
Nuff said?

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Replying to tedbuck:
By PhilJ109
17th May 2019 12:42

Some interesting views. However, I am firmly in the booted, tied and suited brigade and have never ever attended the office or the client (with the 1 exception below) without a tie. I have always been an auditor and have been managing the firm's audit department for the last 25 years or so and until now have never looked at my work "uniform" as intimidatory until now! I do believe it shows authority even at a junior level. The only exception to this rigid dress is when attending physical stocktakes when staff are allowed and indeed expected to wear scruffs at factory etc environments as the suit and tie look ridiculous in a greasy dirty workshop and arouses derogatory comments. This still applies to our audit staff in the ever fewer stocktakes left in this type of industry. After almost 45 years of this habit I will be retiring soon and the heaps of ties I have left. There are few from the 70s as in those days they did not last long being trapped in filing cabinet drawers and pulled by errant staples in file and document covers. I now actually wear smart blazers/trousers & tie half the time instead of suits but mostly with tie clips/collar clips & pins/cufflinks and sometimes self-tied bowties. I do not buy 3 piece suits now or generally wear a waistcoat Of course my grandad was somewhat a dandy in the 1920s which has passed down to me and some of his clips etc The office has recently reverted back to a proper dress code for all staff to an increasing trend of some individuals coming into the office and visiting/seeing clients tieless and jacketless and with unpolished shoes. It has also occurred to me that I have been wearing a tie when I am out and about most days since I started school 60 years ago. I even take one or two on holiday abroad but not hot destinations. I do change immediately I get home out of my office clothes and do not sit down to dinner or watch TV in jacket & tie as seen in old films/photographs. Most of our clients do expect their accountants to be smart and look "professional" although some are not bothered particularly the younger ones.

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By enanen
17th May 2019 12:04

"The more interesting point relates to perceived authority. It is very clear from recent high-profile disasters attaching to the profession and ensuing media reports that there is a lack of faith in auditors’ ability to do their jobs adequately."

Wearing a suit and tie will not affect work quality in this instance. Most of the audit failings have been centered around the work of the suited and booted large accountancy and advice firms. Wearing suits did not get a quality result.

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Replying to enanen:
By dwgw
17th May 2019 18:17

My career began at Arthur Andersen. Simple, strict dress code - men in suits and ties, women in skirts or dresses with no bare arms or legs.

I don't think it was casual dressing that brought down the biggest firm in the world.

Now I work from home and wear what I like but always smart casual - with a jacket - if I'm seeing a client. I've always liked wearing a tie but I can't remember the last time I did.

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By Tom 7000
18th May 2019 13:57

Haha its easy...

If everyone at a convention is wearing suits put on Jeans and a sweatshirt with your company logo.

If everyone is wearing jeans put your suit on.

Now ask yourself....why would you do that....

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