In pursuing my genealogy, I’m digging through a treasure-trove of beautiful old pictures of many of my ancestors and relatives. And one thing that’s striking is how they dressed. My late father, a former Finance professor, made sure to be in a tie and jacket – no matter how the times evolved. One picture in particular shows my father giving a lecture while in a three-piece suit – unheard-of in my own graduate school experiences. Pictures from my mother’s side revealed a pre-WWII casual afternoon get-together, with everyone in collared shirts, vests, ties, and even jackets… for coffee in a private home. (My mother is second from the right!)
Back in the early days of my career as a co-op, we male co-ops and interns were required to wear button-down shirts and ties. Women were required to be equally formal. I think it impressed upon us that we were “no longer in Kansas, Toto” – but rather part of a profession, and thus required to be professionals in our comportment.
Even in my first jobs out of college, ties were de rigueur. When I went to graduate school to get my Masters of Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in fulltime study, while I was steeping in the halls of academia, the whole business casual revolution happened. I remember a small sense of shock when I was interviewing for jobs and seeing fellow professionals and the interviewing manager in polo shirts. As I settled into my new job, while I reveled in the greater comfort level afforded by such dress, I felt wrong somehow.
Over the last few years things have gone from a relaxed attitude I could fathom and even appreciate, to a level of informality beyond comprehension. I’ve seen “white-collar” professionals in grunge clothing: ratty T-shirts and ripped jeans more appropriate to slouching around the apartment or going to beach parties. And speaking of beach parties, I’ve seen degreed people ambling the halls in T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, women wearing tight “clubwear” dresses or low-cut blouses more suited to evenings than daytimes, men in tight jeans and shirts unbuttoned halfway down to their belt as though they were heading for the meat-market bars straight from work – and getting into the mindset beforehand.
Certainly personal style is something to be celebrated – each of us is unique. And I understand that how one dresses is a large part of how one demonstrates that. But when one is at work one is not only an individual, but a part of an organization.
Many companies now post prints (e.g., “Successories”) touting teamwork, cooperation, working without caring who gets the credit, and so on- clearly in an attempt to gin up morale and teamwork (this in turn has launched cynical imitations of such materials). While I don’t know the timelines of the fall of ties and the rise of motivational posters, it suddenly struck me: Could there be a connection?
Advocates of school uniforms tout the atmosphere such uniforms create: a sense of community, of oneness, and cohesion of the group towards the goal – in the case of schools, the goal of education. In the case of a business, formal dress standards create an atmosphere of professionalism. And while I understand and appreciate the argument that a relaxed dress code can lead to a more fun and congenial atmosphere, I will opine the pendulum has swung a little far, and needs to be pulled back.
If “clothes make the man (or woman)”, thus affecting how we are perceived, why wouldn’t we want to be perceived in a better light? After all, the conventional wisdom is to dress for the position you want, not necessarily the one you have. And never mind the impression such attire makes on potential customers. (And not just in the workplace – I’ve been to networking events where, at the C-suite table, one person showed up in a V-necked undershirt, jeans, and sneakers. I compared him with another person at the same table who was always impeccably dressed in a long-sleeve short and smart-looking, pressed slacks with polished shoes. Who do you think I’d be more interested in associating with, and getting to know?)
First impressions matter, as I wrote in Done in Seven Seconds. But how you dress also affects your attitude on an ongoing basis. You will be more serious about your work, and be taken more seriously, when you dress appropriately. (There’s actually a recommendation from one of the outplacement services I’ve been to that, even if at home, you dress professionally – to put you in the right frame of mind for job searching.) In reality, I don’t really want to wear ties again – but I do think that, across the white collar world, we could push the professionalism up a notch or two.
There’s an old saying, “Smile, it makes people wonder what you’re up to.” In the spirit of this essay, dress up a level or two. Make ‘em wonder what you’re up to.
© 2013, David Hunt, PE