What do clothes communicate?
As he so often does, my middle child Tyler gave me some food for thought regarding social mores regarding appropriate dress for business. We had a friendly debate about why it is important to show respect for people you are meeting in a business setting. Our discussion included differing views on Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg's decision to wear his traditional hoodie when he was doing an IPO road show to investors. I believe that shows disrespect to your audience and is essentially arrogant. He believes that clothing doesn't matter and these types of social customs are way past their expiration date. It is about who people are and what they do that matters, not what they wear regardless of the situation.
Thinking about our own client service agency, I saw that we had posted a "Half-Fred" at the end of last week, as we had a prospective client visiting our Boston office. At LPP, "Half-Fred" -- aka Fred Flintstone -- means business casual that does not include jeans or sneakers. "Full-Fred," just to complete the code we use, is aka Fred Astaire and means full formal business attire -- shirts and ties for the men (suits are optional) and nice business dresses, suits or skirts for the women. There are very few Full-Fred days any more, but quite a few Half-Freds, truth be told.
I decided to invite our agency team -- a pretty varied demographic, including the different styles of Boston and Austin, Texas -- to weigh in on the debate. I got an interesting mix of responses that did not easily fall within age or geographic groupings.
In a nutshell, the vote on the question "Do you believe even relaxed dress codes are becoming a thing of the past in companies?" was:
2 Depends on the industry
Interestingly, if you really dig into the "No" votes, the voters really are saying, "No, I don't want dress codes to be a thing of the past."
One of our senior managers believes dress codes will survive in the business world and agrees with my contention that it is a "sign of respect, maturity and class (not to be confused with wealth!) -- attributes that are important in business. You never want what you're saying to be marginalized or discounted because someone is distracted by your outfit. . . the reality is people ARE quick to judge a book by its cover, whether consciously or subconsciously, so why put yourself at a disadvantage?"
Three of our youngest staff members agreed with this assessment and their reasons were interesting.
One noted that when he graduated from college the economy was not strong. "For me to market myself properly, I not only needed to produce quality work, but I needed to show that I was/am a true professional. . . You never get a second chance at a first impression."
One of our most recently converted interns said he recognizes that standards are more relaxed now, but "I am a supporter of a certain level of professionalism and formality in the corporate setting and would agree that clothes absolutely do matter." He further described a course he took about nonverbal communication from which he learned that 70-80 percent of all face-to-face communication is nonverbal (dress, posture, tone, eye contact). "Changing our nonverbal behavior will alter how we are perceived and treated by others, for better or worse." He cited the example of a doctor wearing a white coat.
One other senior team member who leans toward more formality in business dress worries that it has gone too far, leading people to think it's okay to look like they just rolled out of bed. And yet another senior manager said "we've allowed the Seattle grunge lifestyle to exit the coffee houses of the world and invade the board room."
There was definite agreement within this group that looking neat and clean and professional, with pressed clothing and shined shoes, is critical when you are facing clients in meetings, but are really good every day to just show what one called a sense of urgency and importance.
Everyone -- in the Yes and No columns appears to be in agreement that certain industries like Financial Services still maintains very formal dress codes. One of our senior team members noted that a recent survey showed that the percentage of companies with formal dress codes actually has increased slightly, from 36% to 38%. And everyone seems to be in agreement that you have to look presentable, if not formal, for important meetings with clients. But otherwise, the pendulum definitely has swung wildly in the direction of business casual and even beyond business casual to just plain casual.
A couple of people commented that they actually feel more professional when they dress more professionally, which I thought was interesting. One wrote, "If you look good, you'll feel more confident and it will come across both professionally and personally."
One of our senior people in Austin, which definitely has a more casual vibe and where "ties are frowned upon in meetings," blamed social media for the change and the blurring of people's personal and business lives. "Everyone feels the need to wear their personality on their sleeve at all times. And dressing is an extension of one's personality." Personally, I like a separation between work and home and changing into more casual clothes is part of making that shift each day and on weekends, so I agree with that assessment. But a senior manager in Boston had this caution: "If you are going to be a bit of a rebel, you better bring it in terms of what you produce. That's the tradeoff that comes with being different, in my view."
One Boston senior manager noted that her kids are required to wear uniforms at their schools, which she likes, lamenting the fact that people don't even dress nicely to go out to dinner or to religious services anymore. She added, "And when they have a dress down day, they appreciate it more."
I think there was pretty overwhelming agreement in what one of our senior managers called the "middle ground." It doesn't have to be a suit and tie for men and skirt suits or dresses for women to be professional. But true business casual, which is more on the business side of the scale than the casual side makes sense in the workplace. And one of our youngest team members in Boston said that the bigger issue than casual attire is inappropriate attire like tank tops, low cut shirts, too short skirts and sloppy looking sweatpants and sweatshirts.
We have a set of guiding principles for all of our employees and one of them is "we present well." It deliberately has multiple meanings, but one of them is to always carry yourself professionally and the appropriate dress for the appropriate occasion is part of that. As I read through the feedback from our team, I think the definition of "appropriate professional dress" definitely can be broadened. The comments that impacted me the most related to the social media influence to have a personal brand which includes the way you present yourself physically as well as verbally and in writing. People want to express themselves in a very original way. I get that.
But I still think Mark Zuckerberg should not have worn his iconic hoodie on Wall Street. We've heard from a friend at a well respected investment management firm that they were not impressed by his decision to dress this way. And as one of my senior people in Boston wrote, "And, since Groupon and Facebook haven't exactly set the stock market on fire, I think it proves that there are some things like dress codes and accounting guidelines that are still important." Sorry, Tyler.
What do all of you think? And, by the way, how many of you are wearing jeans at work today?