The emperor's new clothes

If not judged with a critical eye, a policy on "casual" attire is just another dress code.At the risk of being labeled a snob of the Eastern Establishment persuasion, this damn Yankee is willing to tip a sacred cow now mooing to applause in management circles.The bovine's talking "business attire," a term that not long ago no one used. Because no one used to need it spelled out for them. Time was,

If not judged with a critical eye, a policy on "casual" attire is just another dress code.

At the risk of being labeled a snob of the Eastern Establishment persuasion, this damn Yankee is willing to tip a sacred cow now mooing to applause in management circles.

The bovine's talking "business attire," a term that not long ago no one used. Because no one used to need it spelled out for them. Time was, say five or ten years ago (expect in sunny climes like Florida), when you could pretty much guess what someone did for a living by what they wore on the job.

Or as a snooty author once put it, a person's social class can be easily denoted by how wide the gulf between his work clothes and Sunday best. So what does running their businesses while dressed for a round of golf or other puttering say about America's managerial class?

Maybe it just means gentility is hopelessly out of date. Or maybe it underscores how Docker-clad desk jockeys have managed to run off with a spectacular victory in reverse snobbery.

Thus, the guy who sticks with his suit and tie gets pegged a stuffed shirt. Put the shoe on the foot of someone accused of being born with a tie around their neck, and the fit's quite different. Now, those managers who dress like they're just stopping by the salt mine on their way to something more important look too silly to take too seriously.

Early in my career I was asked why I "bothered" to wear a suit to visit a truck fleet in the middle of nowhere.

Not bothering to dignify that remark with a reply, I highballed it to my appointment. I knew what I might find. A trucking outfit perched in a cornfield. Ayup. A headquarters comprising a maze of extensions off the owner's original farmhouse. Ayup. A staff decked out in crisp shirts, neatly knotted ties, and shoes shined high enough to shame a Marine. Ayup again.

The fleet manager remarked that while most of the employees never see their customers, insisting on a "professional" dress code emphasized important business was under way and encouraged greater respect among workers.

A former longhauler himself, the carrier's driver-recruiter noted the value of tying one on. "When I was driving," he explained, "I always put a shirt and tie on before arriving at a customer's. It helped pave the way to get me in and out of there fast." And it caught the eye of the company's founder, who boosted him up to management because he wanted "to get more drivers with his kind of attitude."

That's not to say what you wear gives you attitude. It's what's behind the clothes that really matters. A company that simply declares that everyone from board level down can wear what they like "within reason" is like expecting window-dressing alone to move merchandise.

But if casual dress also signifies breaking down more substantial barriers to productivity and job satisfaction, workers will hail the wardrobe change. In other words, dress the part or forget the show.

At any rate, there's good news for all those stalwarts who've bucked the fashionable winds of change. That so many of your upper and middle management colleagues have gone casual signals the end is near for sporty togs as emblems of egalitarianism.

Once a trend originates, it gets picked up by more and more wannabes in search of instant coolness. If strong enough, a trend will eventually get mainstreamed. But before that happens, the trendsetters will have split the scene to start the cycle all over.

But seriously, unless a "casual-dress" policy reflects the overall view management takes of the workplace, it will amount to substituting one arbitrary rule for another. And perhaps rack up expensive and hard-to-spot losses in employee productivity and job satisfaction.

By all means, issue or emulate whatever dress code makes you comfortable. After all, you're the boss. But be sure it makes your employees comfortable, too.

Otherwise, what you save in dry cleaning may well burn a hole in your company's pocket. And that's no way to dress for success.

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