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Exploring Culturally Specific Styles in the Workplace

By Mitali Ved, IMDiversity Career Center

While rules for business attire have changed significantly in the last decade, in both “business” and “business casual” dress environments, few employers have yet dared to raise a crucial question: What about ethnic and religious styles? In a two-part series, IMD Careers writer Mitali Ved looks at the benefits and problems of non-mainstream cultural expression and religious practices in the workplace, from dress codes to diet to holiday observance.

The face of the U.S. workforce is constantly evolving. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, minorities and women presently comprise two-thirds of all new labor force entrants. These numbers are only increasing. In fact, within the next 50 years minorities are projected to make up half of the total population, with Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and immigrants experiencing especially large increases.

As our demographics transform, Corporate America has responded in kind. Companies such as Charles Schwab & Company, the IBM Corporation, and the Northern Trust Company have instituted initiatives to advance women through the corporate ranks, says Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that specializes in the career development of women. We see minority professionals at the upper-management levels of such companies as Lucent Technologies, Chase Manhattan Corp., and Hyatt. African Americans have taken the helm of Fannie Mae, Applied Materials, Merrill Lynch, and Disney, reports Fortune Magazine. And in Silicon Valley, the technological epicenter of the West Coast, approximately one-third of all successful start-ups are founded or run by immigrants. Even at companies where corporate power is still in the hands of a white male majority, diversity training and recruitment initiatives are increasingly common.

Clearly, the Dark Ages of unrepresentative corporate control are finally fading. Nevertheless, one area has been slow to advance with the times: corporate dress codes.

Conservative suits still dominate industries such as law, accounting, and investment banking. And while “business casual” has entered the lives of everybody from bankers to tech professionals to insurance agents, few have mastered its strange rules. For instance, at one law firm, signature golf shirts are acceptable, but not short-sleeved shirts. At another, khakis are permitted, but not capri pants. Numerous popular books have emerged to help employees walk the tightrope between acceptable and banned business dress styles, including Beyond Business Casual: What to Wear to Work If You Want to Get Ahead by Ann Marie Sabath and Your Executive Image: How to Look Your Best & Project Success for Men and Women by Victoria A. Seitz.

Cultural Dress and the Law

Although rules for business attire have been changing significantly, in both “business” and “business casual” dress environments, few employers have dared to raise a crucial question: What about ethnic and religious styles? Can these styles -- including anything from the sarees and salwaar kameez ensembles worn by many Indian women, to the dreadlocks and braids of some African Americans, to the turbans adorning certain Sikh men be worn in the workplace without criticism, and indeed, with approval? It is a question that must be asked, given that many professionals are unwilling and in some cases, due to religious and cultural beliefs, unable to comply with typical corporate dress codes.

A graphic designer born in the Ludhiana, Punjab and presently working in New York City believes that there is life beyond Brooks Brothers and Anne Taylor. “Some might say that wearing non-Western clothing might send the wrong message to customers. For example, a woman who works in customer service might wear culturally specific clothing and be faced with more stereotyping than her Western-clothed counterpart. But if repeated exposure to the first woman can help to break down prejudices, it might be a good thing.”

There are many reasons why people wear culturally specific styles in the workplace. Religious or cultural beliefs may dictate ones style and appearance. Immigrants may wear certain styles in order to maintain the culture of their homeland. Younger minority professionals sometimes consciously appropriate specific styles as a matter of cultural pride. Still others sport cultural styles to be frankly trendy, or to act as a conscientious forces of change in Corporate Americas rather bland fashion panorama. It has even become common for American fashion designers to co-opt other cultures styles and make them mainstream.

From a legal perspective, a persons rationale for wearing culturally specific styles is significant. Styles borne of religious and cultural beliefs are protected under U.S. law, whereas fashion decisions based on personal preference may not be.

According to the EEOC, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on account of their religion, birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group. This would include discrimination in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. When it comes to race, Title VII can be broadly interpreted, but tends to focus on immutable physical characteristics such as hair texture or skin color -- even though not all members of a race share common characteristics. As with any serious incident of discrimination in the workplace, it advisable to consult with an employment attorney about your rights and rights of your employer if you believe you have experienced discrimination on cultural or religious grounds.


Increasing Awareness

For many professionals who wear culturally specific fashions, feedback is both positive and empowering. Michael Fondungallah, who is from the Bangwa tribe in the Southwest Province of Cameroon, says that a coworkers “reaction is often one of admiration.” Fondungallah, a law student who works simultaneously as a paralegal in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wears an African “jumper” made out of brocade and other multicolored African fabrics. He says that the jumper differs from the norm in that it is “loose,” “knee length,” as well as brightly hued. According to Fondungallah, Minnesota is quite receptive to different styles of dress, perhaps due to the many Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans who live there.

A woman who was born and raised in Calcutta, India and presently works at a New England university has had similarly positive experiences. Coworkers' reactions to her saree and long kurtas with leggings, she says, “are always supportive. They eagerly wait for the spring when I start wearing sarees. The graduate students and faculty are very appreciative, [remarking] that I add a bit of spice to the drab campus. We just did a wonderful saree exhibit [and] got so many compliments. People stopped by the display case, read every label, asked me questions.” She is confident that she has “educated generations of students” on the importance of appreciating “cultural diversities.”

Mary, an Indian reference librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that wearing a saree works to her advantage in “a campus of 45,000 students plus several thousand employees.” She explains, “On the street when I wait for the bus, in the grocery store, and at functions on campus, students will stop by and say, Do you remember me? You helped me with my library research last/this semester. It makes me feel good about being recognized and acknowledged for my services in a vast, impersonal campus.”


Confronting Assumptions

Of course, wearing professional clothing that differs from the norm can also lead to problems. Mary says for her the main problem is peoples tendency to assume she “wont know English.”

RosaAnabela Tavares, a family practice physician who is mixed Haitian and Angolan, wears “ethnic wraps on her head and sarongs.” She presently wears her hair in a short afro. In the past, when Tavares sported dreadlocks, people had a tendency to assume she was “radical, liberal, and more approachable.” She believes these assumptions arose from her “willingness to step outside” of the status quo.

“Different styles allow people to express their individuality,” she says. “In my capacity as a physician and role model, [my own style] is a strong signal to my patients and colleagues about being open and not being afraid not to be mainstream.” While one who wears culturally specific styles does run the risk of being labeled, Tavares believes that people should wear their ethnic fashions with pride: “As a minority, you run the risk [of being labeled] regardless, so [you] might as well do it while embracing something you care about.”

Geography can strongly contribute to whether culturally specific fashions are condoned or condemned. Tavares explains that in the New York City hospital environment, people of all races have expressed admiration for her hairstyles; and some African Americans see the styles as a means to forge cultural connections. Nevertheless, she adds, “Having done much of my early schooling in Boston, I doubt the reactions would have been as favorable.”


Common Concerns

Just as geography can influence how a cultural style is received, so too can the environment of a particular industry or company. Many Internet and high tech companies tend to be more receptive than, say, law firms and retail stores. Very traditional companies may regard culturally specific styles as aberrant or even substandard, so it is important for concerned employees to watch for signs of trouble or controversy. For those who are trying to strike the right balance between individuality and professionalism, the following tips may come in handy.

Be mindful of your companys dress code. Michael Fondungallah, the paralegal in Minneapolis, has this advice to offer: Before taking a job offer, ask “about the dress code of the company you are going to work for. If you are asked [about your apparel], explain why you wear what you wear and the history of the outfit.” If your companys dress code is flexible, Fondungallah also suggests wearing culturally specific outfits some days and business casual clothes other days.

Practicality matters. Bhaswati, a Bengali woman who is now a preventive care physician in the U.S., wears four gold churis - accessories similar to a bangles - on her right wrist. She says that different physicians have had varying responses to her styles. “In the hospital, the churis brought me a lot of problems in the surgical area. The head nurse and attending physicians [permitted] me to wear them when I was a medical student, but the charge nurse and occasional resident physicians would see them [and] freak out. I had to break off my gold bangles from my wrist after 17 years, in the third year of medical school.” Bhaswatis experiences are a reminder that cultural and religious styles arent necessarily separate from the policies inherent to certain professions.

Use good judgement. Himanee Gupta, an Indian American who works in the journalism industry in Hawaii, frequently wears a salwar kameez to the office. She is selective about when and where she will sport this style since she doesnt wish to “deal with a lot of unwanted attention.” When it comes to culturally specific styles, Gupta believes that “coworkers comfort levels should be considered. If something is nicely made and presentable, I dont see the harm in wearing it in the workplace as a way of allowing [employees] to expand their comfort levels.” Nevertheless, any clothing that is too tight or revealing culturally specific or not is probably not appropriate in the workplace.

Wearing culturally specific styles may enhance ones chances of being stereotyped. But in being true to ones religious or ethnic identity by wearing certain hairstyles, clothing, and jewelry, many people both deliberately and involuntarily also serve as educators. Mary, the librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has found the experience of expressing her cultural identity through style very fulfilling: “For me, it is one of the many ways to attempt to build bridges between people, cultures, and continents.”


How do you manage to stay true to yourself in balancing your traditional cultural expression with the demands of your workplace? If you have any anecdotes or tips to share about dealing with issues of dress, diet, holiday observances, or others, please drop them to us in an e-mail.


Related Readings

Interview Savvy: Dress to Compete in the East or the West by Dr. Ferne Cherne, Women's Village
Professional attire varies immensely across our great land. If you're heading for a job interview and want to compete strategically, learn to look like the "one who will fit in."

Cited Books

Beyond Business Casual: What to Wear to Work If You Want to Get Ahead
By Ann Marie Sabath
Career Press (April 2000)
ISBN: 1564144461

Your Executive Image: How to Look Your Best & Project Success for Men and Women
By Victoria A. Seitz
Adams Media Corporation (February 2000)
ISBN: 1580621783

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