I heard, through a back channel, that a Very Important CEO (VICEO) was giving an award to a project manager who had just led a difficult undertaking to success. In a large gathering, the VICEO invited the project manager to the podium. She stepped up in an outfit that revealed her midriff, replete with ornamented navel.
How should the VICEO have responded? He could have given her the award without comment. He could have announced that this is how all project managers should dress, and that from here on in he would dress this way, too.
Instead, he instituted a business-formal dress code for the entire company, probably because (follow closely now):
1. A high-performing employee,
2. Dressed inappropriately for an occasion, so
3. He’d better institute a rigid dress code, to prevent
4. The poor performance that comes from inappropriate dress, as evidenced by
5. The high-performing employee who dressed inappropriately.
Or maybe he just figured, “This woman’s attire is disrespectful (to me), so I’d better do something about it.”
Abraham Lincoln faced a similar circumstance. To the woman who informed him, disapprovingly, that Ulysses S. Grant had been known to (ohmigawd!) drink he famously responded that he wanted to know the brand of bourbon so he could give it to his other generals.
The past two columns on dress codes generated quite a bit of mail. One letter described the “eyebrow test” suggested by A. J. (“Flip”) Filipowski, president of Platinum Technology back in the good old days: If co-workers raise their eyebrows when they look at you, you might want to reconsider your fashion choice. Filipowski also, on one memorable occasion, broadcast a voicemail describing the company’s new dress code policy: If any manager tried to establish a dress code at Platinum Technology, he’d immediately fire that manager. (But eventually, Platinum sold out to Computer Associates. Draw your own conclusions.)
Ron Watson recounted his experience. In the 1970’s he managed a small data entry group. The ‘uniform’ of the day was, for the women, a skirt and blouse. Most looked a bit frumpy. Ron figured they didn’t make a lot of money and had families to take care of, so he told them they could wear casual and more comfortable clothes if they wanted. They all started wearing pants, and looked much better. They were unwilling to spend much on clothes worn only to work. They spent more when it came to clothes they could wear in private life as well. And, there was a distinct improvement in morale.
Dr. Ronny Richardson, professor of management at Southern Polytechnic State University, has both military and corporate experience. He suspects the preference for business formal originated in the military, where who must defer to whom is evident at a glance.
In the Fortune 100 companies he’s worked with and in, the price and fit of the suit correlates well with rank: Shirtsleeves and tie at low levels; a sport jacket at the next; then a JC Penny suit, and so on. Rank is immediately apparent as well.
Another military anecdote described a base in Texas where the dress was fatigues and morale was poor. The cause? Nobody expected the commies to invade Texas. Which made their duty rather pointless. The solution? The base commander instituted formal dress on Fridays, and morale and discipline immediately improved.
Which leads to speculation regarding the impact on morale had the base commander tried to establish a sense of importance regarding the actual mission of the base. And if dress attire improves morale so much, why not require it during combat?
Instead of worrying about how employees dress, consider this policy: “We hire responsible adults. Our success depends on our employing responsible adults. We treat the men and women who work here as adults, and expect them to be adults, act like adults, and show mature, adult judgment. If, in the judgment of your manager, you aren’t acting like a responsible adult, your manager has a responsibility to work with you to determine whether you’re capable of doing so in the future or whether you’d be better off working elsewhere.” It’s the policy we’d institute at IT Catalysts, Inc. if we had a policy manual.
Which leads to a comment made by several correspondents: that two (now three) columns about dress codes is a lot of time and effort expended on an unimportant issue.
That’s my point exactly. I’m glad you agree.