Forget What You Wear — It’s How You Are That Matters

As a baby boomer I can remember when what people wore spoken volumes about them, the brand they worked for (remember when certain corporates were known for wearing the same attire — almost like a uniform?),  the culture, the professionalism of the people that you met and what you thought about them personally. I think much of that has disappeared in recent years.

Why is that?

Well-known faces in the media have helped. High-powered and successful people who you know, or know of, don’t conform to dress codes like they used to do. You cannot judge so accurately what someone is going to wear, and actually it doesn’t matter any longer. Like me, you have probably made a judgment about someone based on their clothing and then found yourself hugely impressed when you heard what he or she had to say. We all do these things (if only inside our own head). And it doesn’t matter.

There are limits, of course. There tends to be an organizational norm, and most people will be conforming within bounds. More likely these days, inappropriately “uncovered” tattoos will cause more trouble than clothing. And this freeing up is a good thing.

What people wear reminds me of presenteeism in the office. Someone can be judged as goofing off if they are not physically there. We should have grown out of that by now; we know that it is outputs and not inputs that count.

What you wear is a bit like that.

It matters less what you wear and more how you are. It matters less that I respect the clothes that you wear than how smart you are and what contribution you make to the team. It is about getting the right sense of proportion and focusing on the important things in the workplace.

Relaxing our attitudes to clothing is one of the positive changes in the workplace in recent years. It allows more equality and less stress about what I have to wear (and spend to wear) in an office environment. So long as minimum standards are understood, it should be yesterday’s issue.

It is also important to be clear and transparent about your standards of dress code. Make it clear what is OK and not OK and reinforce when you have to. Don’t let anyone push the boundary to the point where colleagues get uncomfortable. Our relationship with our work is important — too important to mess up by loose and wayward clothing arrangements.

Simon North is founder of Position Ignition, a career consulting company in the U.K., and co-author of their eBook 135 Networking Tips. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.