#38 The True Meaning of Business Dress Codes (2000)

All Rights Reserved © 2000 Thomas W. Day

"Back of tranquility lies always conquered unhappiness." -- David Grayson

Unfortunately, this subject can be explored in about a paragraph. If I did that, I'd be stuck looking for another topic to tack on to the end of this Rat, so be forewarned; I'm going to waste some space here pretending this is a more complex issue than it really is.

One of the Twin Cities papers had a big business section spread, a few days ago, describing a half dozen of the area's newest instant millionaires. This group of guys posed for their fifteen minutes of business news fame in jeans and tee-shirts, rumpled khakis and an NBA-logo sweatshirt, or bicycling shorts and a short sleeved sport shirt with a pocket protector stuffed with pens (probably stolen from the company's office supplies). Not a suit among the bunch. Their message is; successful people wear comfortable clothes.

The same day, I listened to an NPR report about the infestation of the casual workplace and the economic problems that was creating for the Fifth Avenue boys and girls who design and sell $1,000 suits to executives and wannabes. The suit builders are trying to drum up interest in "dress up Thursday." The bulk of their market is brain-dead Fortune 500 executives and they hope to convince these hopeless morons that "productivity" can be improved by choking off the blood to the brain and making workers wear clothes that would overdress a Texan spending Xmas in Nome, Alaska. Of course, it makes sense that the suit pushers would be pushing suits. It doesn't make sense that anyone could believe that discomfort increases productivity.

At the root, dress codes are about power. There's nothing more to it, for 99% of office workers who are forced to waste precious resources on antiquated clothing styles, because of company dress codes, in order to keep marginal jobs. For the 1% who actually face live customers and are pretending to "show respect" for those customers by wearing overpriced clown suits, this discussion could be out-to-lunch.

But for the majority, when how we look is more important than how we do our jobs, we're not paying attention to important employment clues. In reality, dress codes are based on a lack of respect. (I could have said that, right at the top of this essay and saved you several minutes of valuable reading time.) That's what they were about in high school and that's still what they're about. To those of us forced to wear tourniquets around our necks, it's pretty clear that being asked to kill brain cells is not an issue of respect or productivity. It's about fear.

Like cops and politicians who couldn't earn respect under any situation, executives who instigate dress codes are mistaking fear for respect. It's possible that they don't care about the fine points that separate one emotion from the other. The existence of an employee dress code is a symbol of disrespect for the employees' skills and value to the company. A dress code screams, "a significant portion of your salary is being paid to entertain me, your boss. I want you to wear a clown suit and you're gonna do it because you don't have any other options."

With all the noise generated in the media, regarding the country's labor shortage and the difficulty in finding people to fill skilled positions, you'd think that creating employee-hostile policies would be a foolish move. Apparently, there are a lot more of us to go around than employers would like to admit, because there is no shortage of awful employers or company policies that create miserable workplaces.

As an employee, being in a position where geek clothes are required ought to be a wake-up call. When you are in demand, nobody talks about what you look like or what you're wearing. You won't have to deal with this kind of crap, when finding people who do what you do is more difficult than poking a criminal in the eye while standing in the middle of the U.S. House of Representatives. Don't kid yourself about this. If what you wear is more important than what you do, you are highly disposable.

Taking the-glass-is-full perspective, employee-hostile company policies are management's way of pointing out a precarious personal employment situation. As Andy Grove (Intel's ex-CEO) tried to tell us a while back, our employer is one of the customers in our own personal business. When that customer is telling us that our product is insignificant, we ought to be paying attention. Being reasonably free Americans, we have lots of options. We can attempt to increase our value to our employer or increase our employer's awareness of our particular skills to the employer's business. We can find a new employer who recognizes our unique contributions and value. Or, we can go back to the drawing board and develop new products (skills) to attract new customers (employers).

What we shouldn't do is accept an employer's disrespect for a few extra bucks and a moment's imagined security. Bobby Dylan once pointed out that "he not busy being born is busy dying." That goes for your career, too. And dead folks don't get much respect.

April 2000

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