Do Your Employees Dress For Failure? - InformationWeek
IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
09:06 AM
Bennett Quillen
Bennett Quillen

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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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. 
User Rank: Strategist
1/6/2014 | 3:47:38 AM
Re: some implementation details
To our success, education on which we spend min 18years, contribute only 15% 
and our Attitude contributes 85%. I guess this is enough to understand our
homework on dressing and presentation.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/6/2014 | 2:58:23 AM
some implementation details
Clear communication trumps. Suits aside, here are some things to keep in mind when negotiating improvements in communication:


Many brilliant engineers are dyslexic.

Many brilliant engineers do not speak English as their first language.

Many brilliant engineers are not brilliant writers.


I can't tell you the number of brilliant architectures I've seen littered with typos in the comments and run-on sentences in the docs. I can't tell you the number of sloppily dressed engineers I've worked with who had more respect for humanity in their little finger than the entire well-heeled sales department. I agree that we need better comportment in industry, but disagree with the importance of the trappings of social class. Dignity won't be won by putting on suits and speaking in formal English.
User Rank: Ninja
1/5/2014 | 7:01:54 PM
Re: Dressing for success?
@WKash... Great point... There is a time and place for dressing professionally. Certainly if you do work from home there is no need but if you are meeting clients then yes.
User Rank: Ninja
1/5/2014 | 6:54:49 PM
Sloppy writing
 One of the most annoying things to me is typos in email. I am not the best speller but that's why I use spellcheck. Even when I do these posts I copy and paste them into word to check my spelling. No one has any excuse to misspell anymore. Sure, a few may get by but on the whole you can get most typos and correct them. When there is an email that is littered with poor grammar and bad spelling that is just being lazy and doesn't reflect well on the sender. If it's an external email it reflects poorly on the company. Anytime you send an email, internal or external, you are representing the company.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/5/2014 | 4:59:37 PM
Attire, Communcations & Respect
Glad to see all the positive comments. Don't get hung up on suits, ties, etc.  Take the message as a whole, (including that management cared enough to meet with everyone weekly!).  Most agreed with the communications and respect pieces.  Our company, like many did away with Casual Friday, and issued guidelines overall (not suits) as all attire had digressed to an inappropriate state for the office.  The changes did result in a more serious (and productive) tone for work.

Personally, I think IM and Texting habits have bled over to email - in a negative way.  With too many typos, often I am left trying to understand what the sender meant.  Many people don't even re-read or proof their emails before hitting SEND.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/3/2014 | 6:57:56 PM
Mixed Feelings
I joined JP Morgan out of college in 1987.  Dark suits, white shirts and power ties were the order of the day.  We received intensive training in computers (the IBM AT came out that year, the MAC was three years old), public speaking and most importantly, written communications.  Everything I wrote was edited three or four times for brevity before being considered "final".

Of all of these, good writing and the ability to express my ideas proved the most valuable lessons I learned.  I stopped wearing suits to work 20 years ago, and even though my business now is servicing ultra high net worth individuals, our dress is business casual and ties are distinctly out of place.

I've come to feel that offices are anachronisms that tend to divide employees.  They've become less and less relevant in an age where information sharing and collaboration are critical.  If you want privacy, duck into a conference room.

The "manuals" you reference sound somewhat prescriptive in this day and age, but they touch on an important point; employee success is about setting clear expectations, and then having a culture that doesn't tolerate compromise.  I've found that managing by exception works best here.

Number 6
Number 6,
User Rank: Moderator
1/3/2014 | 5:15:32 PM
Men Only?
"Men were to exhibit good manners and ambition."

Ah, yes! I do remember those days. The women, on the other hand, were to remain at their desks behind their IBM Selectrics outside those furnished offices.

Men used to wear jackets, ties, and hats when attending sporting events, too.

Sorry, but wearing a suit these days in our profession usually means you're either there for an interview or will be going to a mid-day funeral.

Good writing, however, doesn't go out of fashion. My colleagues, men and women, write just as well now as they did decades ago. Of course, there are... and always were... the exceptions.
User Rank: Ninja
1/3/2014 | 4:42:16 PM
Re: What about the rest of it?
That's the part that grabbed my attention too.

An office for everyone?

Frequent sessions on how to be a better engineer?

Publications on effective communication?

These things are viewed as nothing more than red numbers in a spreadsheet now. I wonder if it is a coincidence that so many employers are screaming about a lack of qualified applicants.

User Rank: Ninja
1/3/2014 | 2:49:04 PM
There is something to be said for formality
If nothing else, when you dress up, you're signalling that what you're doing is important.  Our culture has grown increasingly casual, and while I like working in a casual office, I'm not at all certain I would want politicians or corporate executives to wear T-shirts and jeans on the job.

And it really doesn't hurt for ladies and gentlemen to dress as such.

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