The UBS Employee Dress Code: A Test Santa Claus Would Flunk

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In the old days – circa 1980 or so – companies depended on managing their operations by policies and procedures. Senior managers would issue an updated process and procedure, and people would follow the new marching orders. It seemed to work well – except when times changed and it didn’t.

Swiss banking giant UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland), in a back-to-the future-moment, has just issued an extensive set of dress guidelines for its client-facing employees (“wear flesh colored underwear“) that makes it feel like the 1980’s all over.  

There have always companies that manage by procedure and regulation. While UPS (United Parcel Service) grew through rules and procedures (including extensive time and motion studies which proceduralized the “best” way to do things), an upstart like FedEx (Federal Express) – while it had procedures – managed by culture and values.

FedEx‘s mantra of “People-Service-Profit” not only led to national recognition for its impact on quality service, it also formed the basis for all business decisions at the company. Rather than looking to the personnel manual, employees were incented and rewarded for actions that served the culture/values umbrella. Nordstrom‘s in the retail sector, or Southwest Airlines are other solid examples of firms managing by being heavy on culture rather than heavy on rules and process.

When the old days became the new days many companies moved away from a heavy reliance on policies and procedures. Why? One word; speed. Constant change and the need for companies to travel light and move quickly became the new norm for many businesses in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The General Electric that Jack Welch inherited when he became the firm’s CEO in 1981 – a lumbering, slow moving giant that anticipated poorly and reacted slowly – is a great case in point. Welch’s antidote? Move to a bias for action and a mindset and mantra of “speed, simplicity, and self-confidence.”

Fast forward to 2010 (almost 2011) and most successful organizations operate with a few policies and procedures (excepting areas like accounting, compliance and regulatory, which are heaven-on-earth for policy and procedure afecionados). These are the empowering “aughts” and “teens” when employees are trusted to use their good judgement to quickly move the organizational enterprise forward.

Trusted, that is, except in how to dress if you happen to work for Swiss financial giant UBS. The bank believes it should instruct its client-facing employees over the course of 44 pages on how to properly dress and act with clients. As if it were written by The Onion,  it’s the type of thing with which many in San Francisco / Silicon Valley (and around much of the world) will have a field day. Some sample words of wisdom:

  • ” Women can wear no more than seven pieces of jewelry, while men can only wear three, according to the new dress code. The shirt collar must be wide enough to pass a finger inside.”
  • “. . designer stubble is out of the question for men, as is excessive facial hair. UBS’s advice for men even extends to underwear, which should be of good quality and easily washable, but still remain undetectable. Black knee-high socks are preferable as they prevent showing bare skin when crossing legs, it says.”
  • “Male employees are also warned about using hair dyes to mask their advancing age, since the “artificial color contrasts excessively with the actual age of your skin.”

The full employee dress code – in French, which can be translated using something like Google translate – can be found here. This dress code is the type of thing that when I headed up HR for a $13B firm in the 1990’s – before taking my consulting practice coaching execs and team full-time – made me recognize that either someone had too much time, or we were hiring the wrong people.

Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, is purported to have said, “We don’t train our people in customer service. Their parents do that.”

Sounds like UBS could profit by hiring the kids of those parents rather than spending time and money on issuing 43 page manuals on how to dress.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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