What The Boss Expects From You: #2

"The apparel oft proclaims the man."

I tremble as I write this. Your reaction to the notion that we are all expected, as employees, to be where we are required to be during times of action and importance was so extreme (some of you), so enraged (some of you), that I really wonder what you're going to feel about all the other things that our bosses expect of us.

Before I get to that, I want to make one thing clear: every boss you have has a boss. That boss has a boss. And that boss's boss probably has a boss. Some of the most nervous people I know are the boss's boss's boss's boss, because they have to deal with an Uber-Boss and, most scary, a Board of Directors filled with Ultra Super Uber-Bosses.

So while your boss is tooling with you, he is being tooled with by an even bigger tool. This is an important factor for you to ponder. That is, your boss is most probably operating under the same -- if not more stringent! -- requirements as you. And while it is highly unlikely that YOU will be called at 2:00 AM by an enraged mogul, there is every chance that your boss's boss's boss's boss's boss lives with that possibility every day.

What I'm saying is that it's not completely sensible to divide the world into Bosses and Employees. Some of us are, it is true, bosses. All of us, except perhaps for Warren Buffett, are both. Even Steve Jobs must report on his activities to the scary gray suits at the SEC.

Speaking of that, here is What Your Boss Expects of You, Part Two:

#2: Dress appropriately.

Let's discuss the concept of "appropriately," because it's not an easy one. A central concept of the sociology of groups is that members of a group are, to one extent or another depending on the ridigity and structure of the group, expected to behave and perform in ways that are predictable and consistent. That's what makes them members of the group, as opposed to visitors or outsiders. Part of what makes you consistent and predictable is involved with the way you look.

When a McKinsey consultant comes to visit your operation, you may all be dressed in dark pants and short-sleeved white shirts with pocket protectors, but they will invariably be in dark blue suits with a light pinstripe, crisp business shirt and modest red, yellow or blue tie. This says to the group they are about to gut, "You may all be members of your group, but I belong to the McKinsey group, and woe is you."

In short, every organization has a "uniform" of one sort or another. Groups that are highly structured have a real one: the Army, for instance. The priesthood. IBM.

Others allow latitude within the shell. Recently, I have noticed, it is acceptable at high-level meetings with new media people to wear a formal business suit and an open-collared shirt. A black t-shirt under your jacket, however, may push the envelope too far and lead to negative chatter about you afterwards, unless you are an entrepreneur, in which case you can wear what you like and comb your hair forward. Of course, that's the entrepreneur uniform. If they show up in a pinstriped monkey-suit, people tend to think they're not quite as with-it as they might be.

When you see a bunch of Googlers (GOOG) hanging around Mountain View, they are all in uniform too. I can't quite describe it, but when I was there a while ago it seemed to have to do with neat, collarless t-shirts, nice jeans or simple slacks of some kind, no sports jackets, at least for the groundlings. A guy in a three-piece suit there would stick out like a turkey in a flock of geese.

What may be appropriate in one setting for your culture may be highly bizarre in another. A few months ago, I dressed in a way I believed was acceptable for the day: brown slacks, pink shirt, deep red tie, and a camel's-hair sport coat that was my pride and joy. The thing is, I had forgotten that I was scheduled to go to a luncheon where my CFO was speaking to about 500 security analysts. I entered that ballroom into a sea of blue and gray. I felt like Bozo the Clown at a funeral.

I will stress that within the bounds of what is permissible in your corporate culture there are many colors, many variations, and to some extent your role can determine just how crusty you want to be. When I have a meeting on the 247th floor of my office tower, I always dress like a banker. When I am at home with the troops, particularly on a Friday, I will throw on any old thing -- remembering that a call may come that requires me to appear more serious than I feel.

And for the true creative oddballs almost anything goes. Take the guy down the hall from me, we'll call him Ted. Ted is unique, a one-man band that handles the creative chores that might be assigned to four normal people. Some days, he only shaves half his face. Not long ago, I came in one morning and my assistant, Elizabeth, said to me, "Ted is wearing two left shoes today." I thought, "Nah, come on. That's too much even for Ted." So I went in to look and sure enough. Two long, elegant left shoes, one of them on his right foot.

"Ted," I said. "What's with the shoes."

"Well," said Ted, "I ordered them from L.L. Bean and they made a mistake. I've asked them to send me a new right one, but that's going to take about a week and I didn't want to waste them, you know..."

Did I think any less of Ted? No way. They were appropriate business shoes, even if it was incredibly weird to see both bend in the same direction. And hey, if the boy needs that kind of out-of-the-box thinking to work the way he does? More power to him. You don't want to be a jerk about these things, even if you are the boss. And people can get ridiculous about it.

Back in the early 90s, I worked for a division of Westinghouse. The head of the corporate department that oversaw my function held a horrible offsite in Morgantown, West Virginia, which I think is probably a great place to go hunting and fishing and enjoy the beauties of the outdoors, but to be holed up in a conference room in a motel for four days with a bunch of people you didn't really know talking about Quality was pretty intolerable.

The second night, we were all supposed to enjoy an informal barbecue. Now, "informal" poses a serious problem for corporate types. What do you wear? Just the other night, in fact, I attended a cocktail party with a bunch of very serious people. The garb was "business informal," and as each of us entered the party I saw them look around to check whether they were making fools of themselves, myself included. "Thank God you're in a polo-shirt, said one President of a division to me. "I was worried." See?

At any rate, there I am with my pal Charley, who is also from New York, and we're going to this barbecue in Morgantown hosted by the stick-up-the-butt corporate vice president. And we both decide that the safe informal costume for men will do -- khaki slacks, blue button-down shirt and navy blazer. We arrive and Aileen is at the door to the hall. "What are you two wearing?" she says.

"Well," I said, "You're pretty much looking at it, Aileen."

"Go back and change," she says to us. I laughed. "I'm not joking," she says. "This was supposed to be informal and relaxed. Didn't you get the memo?"

So we both went back to our rooms and put on polo shirts and jeans, which we wore with our business shoes, which looked ridiculous. And then we went back to the party, where we were about as informal and relaxed as two pit bulls on speed.

The boss can only mandate certain things, I guess. What you wear on the outside is his or her business. What goes on inside? That's still your call.  

39 Comments Add Comment

Boy do I know about old school culture and dress code. I work for a very old conservative Fortune 500 in sales. We are "required" to wear white shirts and suits to all outside calls. What a great way to build rapport with the shipping manager coming in wearing a suit and looking completely out of place. Interestingly the Senior level sales people (calling on the monster companies in the US) can wear khakis and a polo shirt to their meetings. If we spent less time on attire and more time on building stronger relationships we would be #1 in our industry, instead of #2.

Bing... if you want to keep the front page of CNN, you need to be more contriversal than Jeans vs Slacks. That's for some fashion rag.

We'll wear what want to wear and you'll like it. There are hundreds of employers out there, we just don't need someone who wants to control us to the point that they tell us to change our clothes.

That went out in the 1990s...

In our office the men are expected to wear dockers and either polos or button ups with nice shoes. One of the Acct Execs shows up looking like a bicycle messengers (old tee shirt, woren out cargo shorts, and no socks with black bicycle shoes)or he comes in looking like a homeless person with a burito stain on the old sweat shirt. We are on talking just on Friday where it is exceptable.
Kinda brings the moral of the office down when everyone else has to conform to code.

Nicely done. Dress is a very tricky thing in business, dressing casually in a formal setting is every bit as bad as dressing formally in a casual setting.

I've found that the polo-shirt and slacks has it's benefits. It can project an aura of "we don't have to wear suits here" to an IBM rep, which does help keep things in their place. But make no mistake: On the door of my office hangs a custom tailored pinstripe suit, slacks, shirt, links, and tie.

When I come out wearing that, people usually panic. Which can be handy at times.

Well Stanley, this is certainly an improvement over Part 1. Lots of good modifiers that make it clear that one size definitely does not fit all. So much more realistic than that "you take a vacation and you're fired" attitude that seemed to come across in Part 1.

Most enlightened employers I am familiar with allow a lot of flexibility in dress as long as the employee involved isn't meeting with clients or the public that particular day. And even if you are meeting with clients, it's really the expectations of those clients, not the boss, that are truly important. If the client likes your product and doesn't care how you're dressed while providing it, then the fact that your employer demands a suit and tie doesn't seem like much of a credible demand. You'll just take the clients with you as you leave.

Talent will generally flow to less-uptight employers. It's all basic economics -- supply and demand. When the unemployment rate goes back up, then employers may get away with dictating the color of your tie; but right now, only the naturally anal and uncreative will put up with that.

Ok I disagreed with you on the last one but I agree on this one. I play it safe with dress, even if I hear from someone who's 'been there' that a place is an informal google/apple style place, as a consultant my first time going somewhere I go with the suit and tie by default. You can always take off the blazer and tie if it turns out to be less formal than you expected. I have no problem with my company enforcing a dress code.

And about your experience in Morgantown -- does Aileen's failure to adequately explain "business informal" to you BEFORE dressing you down (pun intended) over it give you some glimmer about how Mark must have felt about your vacation attitude? What, you were too dense to understand the meaning of "business informal?" Me too.

We had a guy in our lab who had a major breakthrough in his cancer research, but he insisted on wearing sneakers to work. (In our lab, black shoes are mandatory apparel.) Needless to say, we had to let him go. His arrogance potentially cost humanity a cure for cancer. What a tool!

Soooo ... you're saying that stains are OUT now?? Damn, gotta buy a whole new wardrobe.

Once I worked at a place where there was this guy who was completely unqualified for his job. He didn't know anything, and didn't do anything. But he was wearing very expensive suites with tie every day. He looked and acted very professional. Managers liked him.

I agree with you on this one.

On the Steve Job's iphone release, if anyone remembers, Steve came in a nice T and blue jeans in front of so many people in Strictly formal dress. However, nobody complained about him. So, one should also think of their comfort before wearing any type of dress, even if it is for a office function.

I bust a gut every-time I read your articles. Thanks for the laughs - it is all so true.

I periodically check in on your blog as I find it quite amusing. However, I am blown away by the entitlement mentality of the people writing in. First, I should point out, I am a 31 yr old (Gen X/Y for those who seem to care) who has worked for everything I have achieved (no silver spoon). In my short career I have attained the position of VP at a successful investment firm.

Clearly, most of the people making these comments have no idea about putting together an earnings release or the time commitments of being an executive. I am not complaining about either, I chose my job, but executives (even junior executives) don't need to have their vacations approved. They are paid to make decisions in unstructured environments. Why should one of the easiest decisions to make, "when to take vacation" be approved by someone? Executives are evaluated by the quality of their decisions and then their ability to drive the execution of those decisions. Why should Bing or anyone else create a policy that should already be understood by anyone in that position? The executive needs to spend time on decisions that matter. Also, just a side note, did I see someone was encouraging a fatter organization? More layers of management? Have we come that far full circle?

Second, not taking vacation during earnings season (something I understand VERY well) has nothing to do with putting work ahead of family. Working the entire time you are on vacation because you have to help prepare for the earnings call: that is putting work ahead of your family. Wait a week and go to Hawaii with you family and don't check your crackberry.

As far as the clothing comments, it can be very difficult to gauge the appropriateness of each situation and don't forget location. Take the east coast executives and the west coast new media crew and put them in Utah or Colorado in the mountains and what to wear becomes an even tougher decision. I just had this converstaion with a counterpart of mine who recently had an embarrassing example of a bad decision. It is important what you wear Bing, but number 2? I hope it's not in order of importance!

Keep up the good work. I anxiously look forward to reading future comments about how ridiculous your expectations are. It unfortunately highlights how our society is more concerned about their perceived entitlements vs being a smart person who is a team player and gets the job done. And for those of you who can find a job in two weeks and just keep switching companies, more power to you. I just hope you don't have any aspirations above what you currently do! Oh, and have you heard of outsourcing?

As we end this week and I loosen my tie, kick off my shoes and slip into my jeans and tee shirt, I would like to thank Steve of Baltimore, Maryland, for his comment. I love everybody's thoughts, even those of you who think I'm a "moron," an "idiot," and a "bad boss." Really, I do. I am very happy when you guys take the time to write in, especially, for some reason, the ones who write in to say I am wasting their time. But Steve, you gave me a smile. Thanks. Have a good weekend, everybody.

"It is always better to be overdressed than to be underdressed" is a quote I can remember coming from my Mom before going to school, church, on a date, to dinner, my first college interview, my first job interview, my first day on the job, etc., etc. Although there may have been times that I was overdressed, I'm sure it was more "appropiate" than if I were underdressed. Self-confidence and impressions that you make on others begin with your appearance. This is something that, sadly, is not considered to be as important as it once was in many business settings.

I don't know,Bing. That kid sounds pissed.

I'm pushing 67 and I retired a year and a half ago. One of the greatest days of my life was when management announced "casual Fridays." I had worn a coat and tie every day of my working life and even in COLLEGE, if you can believe it (St Joseph's College in Philly, run by Jesuits, 1958-1962). I remember my first day of class as a Freshman. It was early September and hot as hell. I had on the required coat and tie. I went in the Caf for lunch...it was boiling in there...I slipped off my coat and hung it over the back of my chair. A rotund priest in black frock who I later learned had the title "Dean of Discipline" approached, began to feel the fabric of my sport coat between his thumb and fingers and said "nice material...WEAR IT!"

Dress-down Fridays evolved into dress-down all the time. I came to wonder how the custom of tying a piece of cloth tightly around one's neck ever came to be in the first place. Today I'll only wear a suit and tie to a wedding. I notice people even dress casual at wakes today. As to the business world, yes, I also used to worry about dresscodes but I am so glad that's all behind me.

I guess I'm not surprised-- only dismayed-- that when discussing apparel, you only address what men wear to the office. As any Vogue girl will tell you, women have far greater flexibility in terms of what they can wear: it's not farty tweed blazer versus uptight suit jacket, the preppy penny loafers or the rubber-stamp Bally clunkers; it's the pencil skirt with the tall boots, the wide-leg, high-belted swingy pants with heels, the cashmere sweater that might--eek! might!-- show off some aspect of one's body that one prides. This is our measly payback for being objectified and belittled for all of time-- we get to wear better clothes. And toolish old bosses just have to live with it. Your boss's boss's boss's boss might-- I'd wager-- appreciate it. But maybe that's why you're griping like Laetitia Baldridge's Dale Carnegie incarnation: because that's a power we have-- even if you're the boss-- that you don't.

Hi, Jillian. Of course, you're right. It's hard for me to know what to say about the issue of what women should wear, you know. I do agree that you have greater flexibility, that's for sure. My own perception is that one needs to be permitted a little swagger to wear the skirt that shows off the eek. But that eek is certainly noticed and appreciated, and is sometimes even a good tool for manipulating the tools.

Beyond that, I'd like to observe that a lot of the time I have a problem constantly saying "he and she" or "him and her" in writing about organizations. It's hard to do and keep sentences comprehensible sometimes. But there's never a moment when I see the workplace -- any workplace -- strictly in male terms. It's just not like that anymore. So in this case, I simply beg humility and ignorance on the subject of female fashion. In general, I'll always try to make clear that we don't live in a world populated only by male dinosaurs. Thanks for writing.

One time at a conference, we were having "Western Theme Night" during a top management conference. It was made very clear that it was jeans, cowboy shirts, etc. The theme coordinator handed out corny bandanas and straw cowboy hats. My jerk boss (at the time) showed up in his Brooks Brothers french-cuff shirt and Allen Edmond shoes. Very dorky indeed. Provided some great entertainment for the rest of us (including the chairman of the board). So, you CAN be overdressed.
But on the whole, dress for success is a good motto, I think. (unless you work at home -- like I do now - and can go to the post office in your slippers.
Also, I think it is the responsibility of the meeting planner to be very specific about what they mean by 'casual,' 'business casual,' etc....

I decided to become a journalist because it's the most casual-dressing job where you use your brain, that I knew of. Now there's Google too. I want to work at Google.

Did not appreciate the 'eek' comment. I want to get ahead on the strength of my ideas not my ass-ets.

If my superiors are thinking about my derriere, are they really focused on the job and doing the things we need to do to get ahead as a company?

I'm a retired baby boomer and I have to agree with the author's comments. Bottom line is figure out what the boss wants and do it (or wear it). I followed that advice only some of the time and that hurt me. If your management wears nice suits, you wear a nice suit. If they dress like dorks, you dress like a dork.

I worked in an organization where the management all wore short sleeve shirts and cheap ties. The best thing I could have done was to go out and buy 10 short sleeve shirts and 5 cheap ugly ties. Instead I dressed better than they and believe me it did not help.

Like it or not, the workplace is not a democracy, it is a dictatorship. It's not fair or right, but it is.

Boss expects, you deliver. Boss thinks only the caucasian employees must get the credit for any accomplishment, because he thinks they are the only one promotable. It is boss's perception that accent or skin color other than "white" does not carry weight with the cusotmers, including the US Government. Now, please tell me, O my Omnipotent friend, what is Thy advice when the company states in writing that due to ethnicity and accent, any employee is unpromotable?

I had an assistant who drove me nuts. When I sat down and narrowed down the reasons why it was so stressful working with her, I realized the deal breaker wasn't the things she couldn't control, like her bad spelling (which we all seem to have anyway), or her lack of competency, or her poor work performance, which I attribute to a lack of education and skill. The thing that bothered me the most and was the deciding factor in asking her to leave, was her attitude, which manifested itself in many way, including the way she dressed. She dressed unprofessional, to the point where I didn't know if she was going to hit the beach in her see through white cotton shirt with multi-colored bra, or hit the bar scene with thigh high boots and a mini skirt with a side zipper. This is in an environment where the written dress code is a business suit or business skirt suit. Even after telling her several times she insisted that what she was wearing was appropriate. Her image tattered my image and though it's hard not to have an assistant anymore, it is worth it for the respect I can maintain with my clients.

Simple rule of thumb, Dress similar to your boss as long as he's in the same office. Your boss wears jeans; you can wear jeans, you boss wears a tie, you should probaly wear a tie. This will more than likely keep your attire "off his radar" since what you're wearing seems normal to him.

I work in construction management and dress can vary from ripped jeans and a t-shirt to khakis to suits. But I'm always guided by what my immediate supervisor wears and it always goes unnoticed.

O Jon in Cocoa, Florida... I am far, far from Omnipotent... and I am not an attorney, praise the Lord. But I would say to you that if indeed you work for a firm that has put it to you in writing that you are unpromotable due to the color of your skin, or your ethnicity, or your accent, then you have a very nice case against that company in a court of law. And by the way, it is my perception, which I believe to be true, that any firm wishing to do business with the Government in its many forms must comply with legal anti-discrimination statutes.

I'll be doing these What The Boss Expects of You going forward... but there are laws against what some bosses expect. Use them.

I always dress in a suit no matter where I work. I like to dress up because it makes me seem like a smarter and harder worker. By dressing up, I usually give off the impression that I am above other co-workers. It usually works for me. I do not have people coming to me and talking about their lives or problems. My attitude of superiority shields me from the unnecessary chatter and issues that 'lower' workers face.

Zhang Shuhong, the boss of a Chinese toy company who hanged himself, was named Employee of the Month.

The flip side of the comment by Yadgyu (from TX) is as follows: (and I wouldn't have thought of this angle if I hadn't showed my son this Blog about dress on the job.) He said he didn't like being all dressed up (BTW he is also 6'6") because it made people think they could expect more of him than he felt capable of delivering. He says he prefers reducing expectations by dressing worse than the average. I'm not so sure I'm too keen on this attitude but whata ya gonna do; there you have it.


my boss wears a clown suit everyday. what should I wear?

It depends. What does HIS boss wear?

Steve, if your boss wears a clown suit he (I'm assuming it's a he) probably needs the attention so YOU shouldn't dress the same and steal his thunder.

I think the safe rule on this one - emulate your boss. Choose a work wardrobe that is aligned with what the "boss" wears. As mentioned in previous posts I am an executive admin to executive extraordinaire…I observe corporate dynamics all day long and there is something to the adage "birds of a feather…." If you want upward mobility - dress upwardly….If you are happy in middle management keep your khakis on…but don't complain on why you aren't getting the "air time" you think you deserve. Dress like your executive and you magically increase your chances of being treated as such….it's not rocket science, it's common sense. And for the last time, where a suit to the interview….I don't care if the executive you are meeting with runs a Silicon Valley tech company and is cloaked in tie-dye - guaranteed the VC's that gave him the money ARE NOT.

It seems to me that you are the type of person who needs a good bit of training on the importance of people in an organization. Have you read any good books lately about how to be a successful manager or employee? Most tend to now focus on building relationships not walls. If your most marketable skill is your suit of armor then you should probably seek professional help. Of course if you don't your suites will come in handy on all the interviews you will be going on.

I started in my current "career" via a temp job I hated. I certainly never meant to stay there and become a freaking accountant. I also didn't know what to wear, because the only men in the office were executives, and I was only a temp. My direct supervisor, who was and probably still is a woman, wore some pretty casual attire, in my opinion. One day it was stirrup pants and a cardigan covered with cat hair. Didn't matter. The uptight CFO passed a decree through his timid underlings that I was to wear a tie everyday. I started wearing a tie, and joked that they could pay me less if they let me wear jeans.

I guess the moral of the story is that it didn't matter that much to me. If I'd had ambition to move up, I'd have dressed better from day one. Now I'm in grad school and ready to change careers. I'm sure I'll care more about my attire as I work through this transition.

Bing, as a 30-year-old, I'm embarrassed by some of the entitled comments posted by my age-peers. But... I think you ought to consider, both in context of this piece and the more controversial "be there" piece that some employees don't need to strive for your job or match your committment to work. Maybe Mark felt OK taking that vacation because his head isn't in the same game yours is. What's wrong with that?


my boss's boss is a comic acrobat. he wears a tight jumpsuit.

I am inclined to agrre with "C, Montclair". As a rule of thumb you should dress for the position you are trying to get (or in other words dress better than your current position). Even if you are strapped in the funds department you should make it your goal. I believe it is just plain old common sense. The saying what you throw out into the world, you get back is defintely true in this arena.

I've only got this memo.... Always wearing hooded sweat shirts, may be that's why I'm not a golden boy...
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