Going Corporate on a Tropical Island

Men in suits and ties teamed with pastel striped business shirts and shiny shoes. Women in smart fitted suits with snug blouses complemented by heels, hosiery and business-appropriate make-up. These were the role models of my world for 20 corporate years in Melbourne and Sydney. Of course there were variations – I once worked for a very short, heavy lady who wore exclusively floor-length, sleeveless dresses to work – they were very flattering for her! But by-and-large, women’s skirts were knee-length, the colours were navy blue, black and grey, teamed with mostly black leather-wear and the occasional burst of colour in an accessory.

Then I moved to the Philippines. The unwritten dress code in Australian business circles hadn’t extended to the Philippines, and my first response was elation. I commissioned dresses in jewel colours – my favourite black corporate dress was copied and replicated in lavender, blue, red and fuchsia. I didn’t move to the tropics to be constrained by hosiery, so they were tossed out and lightweight sandals crept in.

Dress code challenges with my local staff were tricky to resolve however; there is “smart casual” and there is sloppy, and my Filipino staff didn’t intuitively know what was appropriate and what wasn’t. While our casual Friday policy in Sydney specified that shirts must be collared, staff could defy this policy with a smart t-shirt, and those staff wearing a ripped t-shirt with a punk rock logo on the front were well aware of their offense.

In the Philippines, when I suggested to one of my staff that his attire was not really “smart casual” (even though his shirt was collared, it hung down almost to his knees) he wanted specific guidance on how long it should be for it to be considered appropriate. Ten cenitmeters below the waistline? Twenty centimeters below? At what point does an untucked shirt go from loosely casual to ridiculous? What we knew intuitively in Sydney required documented policy in the Philippines.


My current situation presents a similar paradox. I live and work on one of the 10 most beautiful tropical islands in the world. It’s hot and humid all year round. There is no central business district, there are no high-rise office buildings, just scattered business parks more akin to a university campus than the business world.

Of course the hosiery and heels are long gone, as are my beautiful jewel-coloured dresses. Here, it’s loose linen pants, light cotton tops and my smart sandals have been replaced by a colourful selection of Birkenstocks. I no longer wear make-up to work and often I arrive with hair still damp from the shower after an early morning swim. I am a long way from Australia’s corporate-focused central business district, but that doesn’t mean I compromise on professionalism. My daily challenge is to accommodate the practicalities of operating a business on a tropical island, while servicing a highly professional client base that are either large corporates, or small professional businesses servicing large corporates.


I strive to be a role model every minute of every day for the behaviours and attitudes that will make my company successful. We are punctual, responsive, courteous, transparent. We are honest, genuine, responsible, accountable and loyal. These are the values that I formerly thought were embodied in how I presented myself every day in the office. Now, meeting my clients daily via a Skype call, I understand that my collarless shirt, my damp hair, my naked face are all irrelevant. It is my daily actions – walking the talk, that reassure my suit-wearing clients that I am “one of them,” that I understand their world, respect their work ethics, and will deliver exactly what I promised, when I promised it.

In our weekly staff on-boarding sessions, I tell my new hires that we have an open-plan office to enable communication flow and role modelling. I don’t have an office; I sit amongst my team. “I am your role model”, I tell them “for the behaviours, language and values of my company. I am not a role model for our dress code – for that, we have a policy.”

About the Author: Michelle Fiegehen is the CEO of Yempo, a boutique offshoring company in three locations in the Philippines. She has lived and worked in the Philippines and India since 2009, building offshore capability for clients in Australia, United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Singapore and Hong Kong.


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