Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dress-code politics

This train of thought started with a call from a friend about dress-code in his office. He's a senior partner at a law firm and he'd been in an argument with a young partner in the New York office about dress code. His question for me was what did I require for dress code in the office? (which I'll answer below)

But then I saw the WSJ article Dress-Code Politics: Who Wears the Pants? When a Man Regulates Attire At Work, Women Often See An Oppressor, Not a Mentor

It starts: "Jim Holt doesn't see himself as a "Neanderthal Man," but that's one of the nicer names he's been called since he expressed his view publicly, in this column, that panty hose are more professional than bare legs for working women". Unbelievably presumptuous. I love the story our client Valerie Malter from JP Morgan told me - when many years ago her boss told her she had to wear hose she asked him if he thought it would change her fund's performance? And he, of course, backed down.

Likewise I was horrified when I read the Washington Post article about the campaign rally with Michelle Obama and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm. It is so blatantly sexist calling the tone an "estrogenfest" and commenting on the statuesque Mrs. Obama, baring enviably chic, muscular arms in a sleeveless sheath". That kind of coverage would be unthinkable (especially from a renowned paper) about two white men. Both women were very professionally attired!

Reality is we're still in an age when people make judgements based on what people wear rather than what they say or do. And men and women often underestimate the role their clothes play in how seriously people take them in the office.

So for the record, and in answer to my friends question, here's Penny's view on office dress code.

1. If you are meeting a customer or outside party, or there is a chance that you will - dress professionally. Smart, well-tailored, suit/dress/pant-suit. I don't subscribe to hose, but if you're not wearing hose the skirt shouldn't be too short. You represent the company, clients are going to pay money for the service, you should respect that with every aspect of their experience of you - including your clothes.

2. If you're definitely not going outside then I don't care provided you are clean, appropriate for an office (no thongs showing/bare midrifs etc.) and have showered. My California team sometimes wears shorts and that's OK with me.

The exception to this in my mind is if you are new and you want to be taken seriously I'd wear business casual until you've established your credibility.

#2 is the controversial one that I ended up debating with my friend. Does what you wear change the way you think in the office? Does it change your demeanour, your seriousness - even on the phone? If you come in wearing a collared shirt and dockers do you take yourself more seriously, and do other people subconsciously take you more seriously? I think it matters, but if you're going to stay on the inside all day in my company then it's your choice.

But don't be surprised if other people consciously, or unconsciously, judge you by what you wear.

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