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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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