What your boss expects of you: Part 2

August 10, 2007, 4:36 PM UTC
Fortune
“The apparel oft proclaims the man.”
          
                         Shakespeare


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I tremble as I write this. Your reaction to the notion that we are all expected, as employees, to be where we are required to be during times of action and importance was so extreme (some of you), so enraged (some of you), that I really wonder what you’re going to feel about all the other things that our bosses expect of us.

Before I get to that, I want to make one thing clear: every boss you have has a boss. That boss has a boss. And that boss’s boss probably has a boss. Some of the most nervous people I know are the boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, because they have to deal with an Uber-Boss and, most scary, a Board of Directors filled with Ultra Super Uber-Bosses.

So while your boss is tooling with you, he is being tooled with by an even bigger tool. This is an important factor for you to ponder. That is, your boss is most probably operating under the same — if not more stringent! — requirements as you. And while it is highly unlikely that YOU will be called at 2:00 AM by an enraged mogul, there is every chance that your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss lives with that possibility every day.

What I’m saying is that it’s not completely sensible to divide the world into Bosses and Employees. Some of us are, it is true, bosses. All of us, except perhaps for Warren Buffett, are both. Even Steve Jobs must report on his activities to the scary gray suits at the SEC.

Speaking of that, here is What Your Boss Expects of You, Part Two:

#2: Dress appropriately.

Let’s discuss the concept of “appropriately,” because it’s not an easy one. A central concept of the sociology of groups is that members of a group are, to one extent or another depending on the ridigity and structure of the group, expected to behave and perform in ways that are predictable and consistent. That’s what makes them members of the group, as opposed to visitors or outsiders. Part of what makes you consistent and predictable is involved with the way you look.

When a McKinsey consultant comes to visit your operation, you may all be dressed in dark pants and short-sleeved white shirts with pocket protectors, but they will invariably be in dark blue suits with a light pinstripe, crisp business shirt and modest red, yellow or blue tie. This says to the group they are about to gut, “You may all be members of your group, but I belong to the McKinsey group, and woe is you.”

In short, every organization has a “uniform” of one sort or another. Groups that are highly structured have a real one: the Army, for instance. The priesthood. IBM.

Others allow latitude within the shell. Recently, I have noticed, it is acceptable at high-level meetings with new media people to wear a formal business suit and an open-collared shirt. A black t-shirt under your jacket, however, may push the envelope too far and lead to negative chatter about you afterwards, unless you are an entrepreneur, in which case you can wear what you like and comb your hair forward. Of course, that’s the entrepreneur uniform. If they show up in a pinstriped monkey-suit, people tend to think they’re not quite as with-it as they might be.

When you see a bunch of Googlers (GOOG) hanging around Mountain View, they are all in uniform too. I can’t quite describe it, but when I was there a while ago it seemed to have to do with neat, collarless t-shirts, nice jeans or simple slacks of some kind, no sports jackets, at least for the groundlings. A guy in a three-piece suit there would stick out like a turkey in a flock of geese.

What may be appropriate in one setting for your culture may be highly bizarre in another. A few months ago, I dressed in a way I believed was acceptable for the day: brown slacks, pink shirt, deep red tie, and a camel’s-hair sport coat that was my pride and joy. The thing is, I had forgotten that I was scheduled to go to a luncheon where my CFO was speaking to about 500 security analysts. I entered that ballroom into a sea of blue and gray. I felt like Bozo the Clown at a funeral.

I will stress that within the bounds of what is permissible in your corporate culture there are many colors, many variations, and to some extent your role can determine just how crusty you want to be. When I have a meeting on the 247th floor of my office tower, I always dress like a banker. When I am at home with the troops, particularly on a Friday, I will throw on any old thing — remembering that a call may come that requires me to appear more serious than I feel.

And for the true creative oddballs almost anything goes. Take the guy down the hall from me, we’ll call him Ted. Ted is unique, a one-man band that handles the creative chores that might be assigned to four normal people. Some days, he only shaves half his face. Not long ago, I came in one morning and my assistant, Elizabeth, said to me, “Ted is wearing two left shoes today.” I thought, “Nah, come on. That’s too much even for Ted.” So I went in to look and sure enough. Two long, elegant left shoes, one of them on his right foot.

“Ted,” I said. “What’s with the shoes.”

“Well,” said Ted, “I ordered them from L.L. Bean and they made a mistake. I’ve asked them to send me a new right one, but that’s going to take about a week and I didn’t want to waste them, you know…”

Did I think any less of Ted? No way. They were appropriate business shoes, even if it was incredibly weird to see both bend in the same direction. And hey, if the boy needs that kind of out-of-the-box thinking to work the way he does? More power to him. You don’t want to be a jerk about these things, even if you are the boss. And people can get ridiculous about it.

Back in the early 90s, I worked for a division of Westinghouse. The head of the corporate department that oversaw my function held a horrible offsite in Morgantown, West Virginia, which I think is probably a great place to go hunting and fishing and enjoy the beauties of the outdoors, but to be holed up in a conference room in a motel for four days with a bunch of people you didn’t really know talking about Quality was pretty intolerable.

The second night, we were all supposed to enjoy an informal barbecue. Now, “informal” poses a serious problem for corporate types. What do you wear? Just the other night, in fact, I attended a cocktail party with a bunch of very serious people. The garb was “business informal,” and as each of us entered the party I saw them look around to check whether they were making fools of themselves, myself included. “Thank God you’re in a polo-shirt, said one President of a division to me. “I was worried.” See?

At any rate, there I am with my pal Charley, who is also from New York, and we’re going to this barbecue in Morgantown hosted by the stick-up-the-butt corporate vice president. And we both decide that the safe informal costume for men will do — khaki slacks, blue button-down shirt and navy blazer. We arrive and Aileen is at the door to the hall. “What are you two wearing?” she says.

“Well,” I said, “You’re pretty much looking at it, Aileen.”

“Go back and change,” she says to us. I laughed. “I’m not joking,” she says. “This was supposed to be informal and relaxed. Didn’t you get the memo?”

So we both went back to our rooms and put on polo shirts and jeans, which we wore with our business shoes, which looked ridiculous. And then we went back to the party, where we were about as informal and relaxed as two pit bulls on speed.

The boss can only mandate certain things, I guess. What you wear on the outside is his or her business. What goes on inside? That’s still your call.