To Suit or not to Suit? The politics of dressing at work

I have never been a suit wearer. There is something about it that just freaks me out. And even though Armani, Dior, Ralph Lauren and countless others have made careers out of beautiful women’s suits, I just can’t hang. Something about basically covering yourself up in one swatch of fabric with perhaps a pop of color for your undershirt and some appropriate earrings just makes me cringe. It’s just not my thing.

When I told one of my friends three years ago that I would be working for a law firm, he snickered and said, so you are actually going to wear a suit to work every day? He didn’t think I could do it and he was right.

I did try to, though. However, I am lucky because my office does not require me to power-suit up everyday and although I cannot go crazy with my creative brand of fashion, I manage to balance what I want to wear and what I should wear to such an extent that I don’t feel too resentful about it. Please note: there are at least 3 dozen outfits in my closet that are crying out to be worn each morning as I brush my teeth and contemplate my outfit choice for the day. Consistently, they mock me as I put on my black cardigan, again.

That notwithstanding, I cannot help but think about expression, individuality, corporate culture, and brand from time to time. As a marketing professional, part of my job is to find ways for my clients (lawyers in this case) to be able to effectively communicate with others, articulate the history/services of our company and, for heaven’s sake, be themselves because I believe that clients hire people not firms.

And so here is the paradox: how do we support people in their efforts to be themselves so they can better cultivate relationships, build business and contribute to a firm while also being a representative of a larger corporate culture? And how do we assimilate people into a corporate culture without asking them to let go of a little portion of their soul (perhaps this is dramatic)? So, selfishly speaking, should you ask me to wear a suit everyday when it is antithetical to who I am and will probably keep me from doing my best work when, in fact, as a part of a law firm that is what I am supposed to wear?  

If we know that companies that succeed are those that have a common vision, goals, values, communication styles and work ethics, the idea of corporate culture and individuality is tricky. Personally,  I think the idea of diversity in the workplace being focused on gender, race, culture, and religion is short sighted because, for me, diversity is also about different worldviews, strategic thinking orientations, and tolerance for stressful situations. Here is an example: 

The most diverse company I have ever worked for was a construction company. Yes, seriously. And not once did I ever hear about diversity.

Because the spectrum of services that a construction company offers is vast, they are required to hire all types of people. In the onset of a project, the team is composed of really dorky math folks who literally look at drawings to determine how much it will cost to build the thing. This means, coordinating with dozens of individual vendors and calculating changes in pricing fluctuation for upwards of 8 – 10 years through a project’s life.  This is complicated, precise and I can assure you most of these people should be behind a computer not in front of people. (Sorry JB) Next we have the field staff who oversee the masons and dry wall contractors. They have to know how to build basically every inch of that building and manage people who are trying every which way to do the work as fast as possible and take every short cut imaginable. That, too, is a specific personality type. Then you have the project managers who have to be able translate field information into a language that is meaningful to a client.  Yes, someone who can communicate and build. That’s tough to find.

What I am trying to say is that diversity is not just a theoretical vision that a construction firm has –  it is a part of the way they do business and the best way for them to make a profit.  They are looking for all different types of people who can perform specific tasks based on their individual strengths so a project can complete on-schedule and on-budget. To only hire “tough guys” or only computer-savvy engineers just wouldn’t work. Diversity is, literally, the only way those skyscrapers get completed.  And although my past firm and the construction industry, in general, has a long way to go, particularly in the area of women in leadership positions, the way their business model has evolved is quite functional and, well, diverse.

I agree that the business model for a construction firm is vastly different from a professional services firm like architecture, accounting, or legal but until diversity becomes a necessity and not a concept, it will never succeed. I can assure you that the company I worked for did not wake up one morning and decide to change their hiring pattern, it was something that came after many many years of failures (they are a 100+ year old company).

And so, because my construction company knew that I was creative and worked 14 hours a day and weekends, they let me wear basically whatever I wanted (within reason) and listen to my music in my office (perhaps too loudly). They did this because I worked hard and was happier if I got to be myself. I also knew that if I had to see a client or go to  interview, I would wear a suit. That seemed reasonable to me.

When companies allow people to be themselves (be at-ease) so the can produce good work and create value for clients, then that is the first step of true diversity. Understanding that personalities, interests, personal histories, and, yes, fashion are as much about diversity as race, gender, culture, and religion and that to truly embrace “diversity” at the workplace is to include all of that and more, then diversity will simply be visible like a Pantone swatch that we can compare with other companies.

This still leaves marketing departments in a quandary as to how to balance the individual and the firm, particularly as it relates to Social Media. It is something that many of us are thinking about and will continue to do so. Diversity, in general, is a tough area for businesses and upper management. It seems as though there is no right way to tackle this very contentious (and litigious) issue.

If you have worked somewhere that has embraced diversity in,well, diverse ways, I would love to hear about it!

In honor of individual expression, here is Madonna – Express Yourself – but Live so you can see what a truly awesome dancer she is and the great Jean-Paul Gaultier costume — part suit, part superwoman corset! Wish I could wear that to work a time or two.

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