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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
Commentary
1/3/2014
09:06 AM
Bennett Quillen
Bennett Quillen
Commentary
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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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RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
1/9/2014 | 2:00:44 PM
Re: some implementation details
Let me just put in a good word for today's young people. From my experience, they have a lot more on the ball than my generation did at the same age. They're more aware and less prone to doing truly stupid things. They're kinder, more respectful. I do find that they're less independent--the victims of too much Mommying and Daddying. Generalizations such as those are always prone to criticism...just my limited observations. I wish I was as "together" in my late teens as my sons are.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/7/2014 | 5:18:36 PM
Re: Mixed Feelings
I think that lack of investment in people is so true -- employers seem to feel that if they pay for training, empoyees will then use those skills to find new gigs. And that may be true in some cases, but it seems like if a company treats its people well, there is still some loyalty left in the world.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Author
1/7/2014 | 9:52:29 AM
Re: some implementation details
Norris, I must respectfully disagree with you. Whikle it's true that dressing up may help some people feel better and be more productive, that is in no way true of all employees. And forcing them all to dress in any specific way is conformist and pretty archaic, if you ask me. I know lots of men (whom I am singling out beciuase you posted the link to men's style) who are very successful and don't dress particularly well at all. I like to think that as a society we have progressed beyond that kind of shallowness.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2014 | 10:29:14 AM
Re: some implementation details
Efemera, I think you hit the nail right on the head with your comment. Clarity of communication and quality of work is what really counts, and the way employees dress -- especially as companies become more and more virtual and global -- matters far less than it may have at any other time. I believe that companies that encourage workers to express their individuality (within respectful perameters, of course) are actually far more productive and innovative.
Kristin Burnham
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Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2014 | 9:14:26 AM
Re: Sloppy writing
PaulS681 -- I second this (though as a writer and reporter, this likely bothers me more than it may others). You represent your company  through words as much as you do your attire.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2014 | 9:03:17 AM
Re: some implementation details
It's a fair point, efemera, and one I hadn't considered. Of course we need to make accommodations for those whose first language isn't English. As for attire, most of us could do better.
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2014 | 8:47:43 AM
Re: Dressing for success?
PaulS681, I couldn't agree more when it comes to meeting clients.  Non verbal communications almost always outweighs verbal communication. I still believe showing respect is a critical component of getting things accomplished with others.  How you dress is a reflection of your respect for others. 
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.
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. :)
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