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1/3/2014
09:06 AM
Bennett Quillen
Bennett Quillen
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Do Your Employees Dress For Failure?

Sloppy writing, attire, and overall comportment reflect poorly on an organization's people and work ethic. Demand better.

A major management recruiting company recently conducted a survey of its clients and discovered that most job applicants aren't qualified for supervisory and middle management positions.

The reasons have nothing to do with deficiencies in intelligence or lack of educational degrees. They were found to be unqualified because of their poor attitudes, sense of entitlement, lack of ambition, poor interactive skills, poor appearance, and lack of education in the fundamentals of writing, speaking, and logical thinking.

This sad state of affairs brought to mind the beginning of my career. More than 40 years ago, I was hired for the data processing department of a large, well-known engineering firm, CF Braun & Co., located in Alhambra, Calif. The job wasn't particularly exciting or unusual: programming in COBOL and Fortran. What was unusual was how this company went about training its staff.

Men were to exhibit good manners and ambition. We were also required to wear suits and ties, even encouraged to wear hats. The company reciprocated by providing private offices for everyone, literally everyone. All offices were carpeted and included a glass-paneled wooden door, handsome wooden desk, chairs, clothes closet, built-in wooden filing cabinets, and a coat stand. Our desks were expected to be uncluttered. If we left papers out after hours, the night staff promptly swept them into the trashcan.

Founder Carl F. Braun considered it essential that every engineer in his company possess the skills of good communication and writing and proper deportment. He wrote four books, all 5 x 8 inches in bright red cloth binding, for all employees to read: Presentation for Engineers and Industrialists, Corporate Correspondence, Fair Thought and Speech, and Letter Writing in Action.

CF Braun also provided weekly luncheon lectures on a wide range of subjects, most of which related to engineering, scientific research, and how to improve writing and presentation skills.

[Business jargon must go. See Stop Butchering The English Language.]

Some may think that his attitude was one of a patriarch and autocrat. Perhaps, but it produced an efficient, well-run organization with high employee morale. Some years ago, the family sold the company, but there's still an enthusiastic group of former employees who refer to themselves as CF Braun alumni.

The other day I happened upon my editions of a couple of those books and glanced through them. It would be well if we applied his admonitions in American business today. Consider just a few of the chapter headings in Fair Thought and Speech: Don't Act Superior; Don't Be Too Positive; Don't Be Unfair; Don't Bluff; Don't Carry Tales; Don't Snap, Don't Scowl.

As I opened another one of his volumes, Letter Writing in Action, I was struck by how much of an impact it had made upon my writing style, without my even being aware of it. For example, Braun stated: "If now our letters fall short either as tools of thinking or as tools of communicating, they are just so much sand in the wheels of our common effort. Ill judgments, misunderstandings, ruffled tempers, ill will, and frustration -- these are the fruits of careless writing."

He insisted on balanced and uniform paragraphs and avoiding (where possible) the use of colons, semi-colons, and dashes. (I can see from above that I have committed some errors!) He called for keeping sentences short and using words of everyday speech. His most important punctuation mark was the period: "Here in the period, we have the king of marks."

There's more behind Braun's rules of conduct than proper letter and report writing. His insistence on men wearing suits wasn't some tyrannical edict. It was to present confident, knowledgeable engineers. The lesson of Braun's teachings: Deportment and communication relate directly to productivity.

In today's almost-anything-goes work we need to once again set a dress code for men: suits and ties, blazers and chinos at a minimum, certainly not jeans, shorts, polos, or flip-flops. As an aside, I was recently a consultant in a client's operations center. Most of those staffers wore shorts, flip-flops, and T-shirts -- and they worked lackadaisically and haphazardly.

I'm specifically avoiding any comment on a ladies' dress code, as therein lays a minefield.

I know all the opposition arguments: We don't deal with customers face-to-face, so we should be able to dress casually. Well, your colleagues are your customers, too. And it's proven that proper deportment begets high productivity.

So, forward with proper English usage, polished letter writing, and suits with white shirts (occasionally blue).

What do you think? Am I stuck in a bygone era, or is there a crying need to improve today's professional standards? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. I'll be sure to weigh in.

Bennett Quillen, a former CIO for a leading mutual fund processing firm, advises financial institutions on project management and technology, specializing in system evaluation, development, conversions, and security and compliance management.

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Jack1957
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Jack1957,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/3/2014 | 2:00:49 PM
Re: Suits Don't Equal Success
My company has gone to casual dress but my team still wear coats and ties. I feel it is much more professional and appropriate. We do deal with outside vendors but in fact dress better than the vendors. Other areas wear jeans and sneakers and I feel that is unprofessional in a modern work environment.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/3/2014 | 1:47:01 PM
Re: Old School
I recently decided to bring a pile of suits to a trade show (Interop) instead of the usual drill of deciding if dark jeans and a blouse or dress pants and sweater were the best choice. It was remarkably freeing to select a suit and shell and go. Now, I saw very few men in suits at the show  -- I think women can dress a suit down with a less fancy top. And ties seem like a form of torture.

In some sense, a suit *is* a uniform, and anyone who has worn a uniform knows, it's often a good feeling to have that decision and worry about fitting in removed.
rmerrill53701
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rmerrill53701,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/3/2014 | 1:01:26 PM
What about the rest of it?
All of culture has changed, including that of business.

It fascinates me how everyone has focused on attire. I admit, that was the subject line, but how about some of the other things:

The company reciprocated by providing private offices for everyone, literally everyone. All offices were carpeted and included a glass-paneled wooden door, handsome wooden desk, chairs, clothes closet, built-in wooden filing cabinets, and a coat stand.

Fair Thought and Speech:Don't Act Superior; Don't Be Too Positive; Don't Be Unfair; Don't Bluff; Don't Carry Tales; Don't Snap, Don't Scowl.

If now our letters fall short either as tools of thinking or as tools of communicating, they are just so much sand in the wheels of our common effort. Ill judgments, misunderstandings, ruffled tempers, ill will, and frustration -- these are the fruits of careless writing."

As far as "sense of entitlement," I wonder if the new hires at CF Braun just expected, like they expected the sun to come up the next day, that if they worked hard and kept their noses clean, that they could retire from CF Braun, with a pension.

 
ANON1248718267483
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ANON1248718267483,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/3/2014 | 12:57:00 PM
Re: Suit and tie of the mind
Shane has valid points in his suit and tie of the mind" critique but they are for personal use. The original article is about establishing a "culture" for an entire workplace. If enough individuals adopt communication skills, cooperation, and enthusiasm for work, a culture can evolve that does not involve a dress code. However, ut will develop slowly. A dress code does set an observable minimum of professional appearance that may inspire more positive focus on work. Or not. It can be a unifying force to create a feeling of community. I worked at a bank for seven years where the employees had a committee to select uniforms. Twice a year the bank purchased a new uniform for all employees from Management to the Tellers. It gave a uniform appearance to the staff and was seen as a benefit, not a cost, to the employees. You can't do it everywhere, however. If you are in a small organization where everybody in IT may still crawl under desks, suit pants are a disadvantage.

Still, Think suit and tie as you work. Appear professional no matter what your garb is.
keitha0000
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keitha0000,
User Rank: Strategist
1/3/2014 | 12:50:15 PM
Re: Suits Don't Equal Success
Clearly it doesn't. The point is that all of thgese things taken together would improve things. Maybe the suit and the hat are out of time, but shirts and ties with dockers wouldn't be a catastrophe. What's wrong with respecting the workplace?
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
1/3/2014 | 12:32:19 PM
Dressing for success?
I think there's a good argument for dressing professionally (neatly, respectfully) when you're meeting with clients -- and even around the office -- but coats and ties are relics of a bygone era.  I have a closet full of expensive suits I once wore proudly, but would now feel almost silly wearing at most business gatherings. And now that so many of us work online,  I'm reminded of Peter Steiner's famous cartoon: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" (The New Yorker. (Volume 69, No. 20, pg. 60). In that instance, dressing for success mostly means dressing for comfort.
On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
1/3/2014 | 12:16:10 PM
Suit and tie of the mind
I think you are stuck in a bygone era, but that doesn't mean your tips aren't still important. I agree with your emphasis on clear communication and a good attitude. Who would argue against that? And sometimes the clothes you wear can make you feel more focused and confident. But a suit and tie? It's overkill and archaic and strange. People would think you're either stubbornly stuck in the past or trying to be ironic. A fleet of suits woud also be a creepy return to the "man in the gray flannel suit" era of bland conformity. We've come too far for that.
Yet I also agree that shorts and flip flops are sloppy and give the appearance that you aren't taking work seriously. I vote for a middle ground of presentable/business casual, depending on your role. But you should always keep your mind as sharp as a suit and tie, even if you're wearing a t-shirt. :)
bquillen280
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bquillen280,
User Rank: Strategist
1/3/2014 | 11:39:08 AM
Re: Old School
Ariella,

Ah yes, men's hats should be removed once in a building and certainly in an elevator with ladies present.  I have three fur fedoras -- fur, not wool, mind you, and two straw hats for spring and summer.  My clients in Bermuda and Charleston, SC, seem to appreciate them.  Bennett
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
1/3/2014 | 11:34:40 AM
Re: Old School
@Bennett "Men were to exhibit good manners and ambition. We were also required to wear suits and ties, even encouraged to wear hats." Now that makes me think of old movies and novels set in the 30s-50s. . Supposedly JFK set the trend for leaving hats off altogether. But the thing about men's hats was that they were supposed to be worn outside and then taken off inside; not doing so was considered a breach of manners. Women, on the other hand, could keep their hats on in a restaurant, though they likely took them off for work if they were secretaries.
Ariella
IW Pick
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
1/3/2014 | 11:31:04 AM
Re: Suits Don't Equal Success
Dress codes vary widely. I remember going to one place that specified that, while they were casual dress, they drew the line at ripped jeans and tank tops. The bank I currently use seems to have a fairly flexible dress code, and some of the women wear sleeveless tops, but one of the tellers said they were considering an incentive plan with a kind of uniform. The local Chase bank has a uniform in place with its signature blue color mandated for tops. Does it run better as a result? I don't know, but I suppose people expect a certain standard for banks, which are traditionally conservative institutions. 
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