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.