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3/14/2002
01:01 PM
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Secret CIO: Dressing For Success In A Tough Economy

As jobs get harder to find and keep, more people are dressing up, not down

I was at a local IT meeting recently, and during the cocktail hour two things struck me. The first was that the economy (or lack thereof) had taken its toll on the quality of the hors d'oeuvres. Where were all the little goodies that made life bearable just in case the speaker wasn't? The second was that almost everyone was wearing a suit. It was as if I had wandered into a business event from 1992 instead of 2002.

I was intrigued. What had happened to the dress-down culture that had become so pervasive? Had we all gotten older and more sedate, or was there some deep sociological event under way?

Once I get an idea in my head, I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Depending on your point of view, this is called "focus" (the term my boss, Phil, uses admiringly) or "obsessive" (what Cindy says when she's feeling more charitable toward me than annoyed).

In any case, I was standing there listening to two guys trying to impress each other with their own importance, but my attention was more on how people were attired, so I could confirm my first impression. Indeed, there were lots of dark blue suits with red ties, a number of tailored jackets with knee-length or longer skirts, and only a few sweaters and slacks. Why? A year or two ago, grunge chic would have been the dominant theme. Back then, the more casual the attire, the more important you were. In the days when dot-coms were flying high, everything was considered OK, with the possible exception of beads implanted in the body and tiaras in your hair. If you wore a suit to work, everyone asked if you had an interview scheduled with an Old Economy firm.

I remember the executive committee discussions when Human Resources presented the new dress code policy options for consideration. Like many companies, we had started out with a casual Friday during the summer and then stretched it to casual Friday year-round. Then HR instituted further modernization by going dress-down all the time. If we couldn't be as exciting as an Internet startup (or have its stock multiple), at least we could clothe ourselves like one.

What a huge amount of time was spent on that decision. It took weeks, but we finally agreed that no jeans or sneakers would be permitted, and bare midriffs were also verboten. "Keep your navel covered; we know you have one," said Stephanie, our VP of HR, who's never at a loss for a deft phrase. I never quite understood, though, her ban on sneakers--unless her HR gurus were afraid that people would wear shoes with blinking lights on them and cause a traffic hazard in the hallways or something like that.

Being a creature of habit, I at first ignored the whole thing and continued to wear my suits. However, I immediately adopted the new code when Lisa, my executive assistant, told me our IT people thought I didn't support the dress-down policy because I wasn't following it. I made the sacrifice and started to go casual, even though it was a lot easier for me to put on a suit than to have to decide whether two garments not cut from the same bolt of material matched. It bruised my ego to have to ask Cindy every dawn whether "A" and "B" went together, although I did start to figure it out just by looking at the pained look on her face when I tossed potential outfits on the bed.

After a while, I got so that I could dress myself in the morning and was feeling pretty good about casual work garb. Now, I'm wondering if we'll all start wearing suits again. Is it just a phenomenon in our neck of the woods, or is there really a shift back to more formal business attire? My sense is that dress-up instead of dress-down is happening and that it's a reaction to the downturn in the economy. As people have to worry more about keeping their jobs, they look for the little things that can make them stand out among their peers as a person of gravitas, an individual worth having in the company. And, if so, what about the impact on the spirit of the workplace? For whatever reason, it always seemed to me that we acted a little more dignified and businesslike when we had to dress differently when we went to work than to a movie on a Saturday night.

If this is really a cultural change, what will happen? On a personal basis, if the new style of business attire is regressing to the way I used to dress, will all the suits in my closet still fit? Will I have to figure out once more what tie goes with what suit and does that color shirt match either? And what will happen when the economy starts to hum again? Will we have to go through the cycle all over again? Will Cindy tolerate living through it with me?

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net and read his online column at informationweek.com where he will provide real--and sometimes whimsical--answers to your questions.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herbert Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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