Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Corporate Noose

Yes, I know its been FAR too long since my last post. I wish I had a really good excuse, like my new job has kept me too busy, or I was traveling on important secret business for the CIA - but alas, the best I can do is admit that I've been spending all of my time playing Mafia Wars on Facebook. It's not even a particularly good game - just a completely mindless distraction. But ENOUGH - I am going to try to keep the words flowing. In this case, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Quincy, MA on a business trip - and between the boredom and the two vodkas I had with dinner, I think I am ready for a new installment of "Bumped His Head". The real question is: Are you ready? Too bad - I really don't care either way...

What is the dress code where you work? Do you even have a dress code? If not, you should thank the gods. I do, and it seriously chaps my hide. I consider "Business Casual" one of the greatest evils in corporate America. It represents much that is wrong with the corporate life, and it symbolizes exactly how idiotic and narrow-minded the vast majority of our world's economic & social leaders really are. But first, a little history lesson...

Most of what we consider modern "formal dress" can be traced to European royalty and their courtesans. Probably the man who most influenced man's modern dress was Beau Brummell. Brummell was an Englishman from the late 18th century who is considered the father of English "dandyism". Brummell, who was a friend of the future King George IV, was himself NOT a member of the royal class, but had many associate and friends within the socialites of England & France. In fact, Brummell was most famous for simply being famous, and for being considered the pinnacle of style - which makes him the 18th century equivalent of Paris Hilton.

Brummell was extremely fastidious about his appearance. He rejected the standard breeches, ruffled collars, powder and wigs of the aristocrats and instead introduced a much more understated dress consisting of close fitting trousers, jacket and a complexly knotted cravat. He also meticulously bathed and groomed himself. It was said that he took 5 hours every day to groom and dress himself, which means that I suspect he didn't have a 1.5 hour commute in L.A. freeway traffic. Dandyism eventually became a social & political statement by non-aristocrats against the upper classes. When the middle class could adorn the epitome of style, they were essentially thumbing their noses at the aristocrats.

Fast forward to the present. Today, the perfectly tailored suit, dress shirt and silk tie is the uniform of the corporate elite. The term "The clothes make the man" is more true today than it has been in the last 30 years. But why? Why are the clothes I wear important to my employer? Am I somehow a smarter or more productive employee because of the color of my pants or the length of my shirt sleeves? Does wrapping my neck in a tightly knotted piece of silk cloth make my thoughts and words more important and worth listening to? According to many corporations, the answer is apparently YES. But I say the answer is a resounding HELL NO!

The late 1990's were a great time for the casual dresser. The tech explosion on the west coast meant that employers were more interested in what you knew and what you could produce rather than how you dressed. Jeans, shorts, sneakers and t-shirts were the standard uniform. Then the tech bubble was popped. The tech worker was once again considered an outcast social misfit that needed to be put into their place by their betters in finance, sales and marketing, and part of that return to power was the return of the corporate "dress for success" mindset. Of course, in my view it was not the tech guys who were responsible for the tech bubble and the crash - it was the finance, sales and marketing dweebs who over-leveraged, over-hyped and over-sold the ideas of the technologists. And for doing that great job - those finance, sales & marketing boneheads became the CFOs & CEOs running today's corporations.

Today, we are struggling to recover from a near economic collapse. A collapse primarily driven by those same finance, sales & marketing leaders. This time they over-leveraged, over-sold and over-hyped the insurance & financial industries. And STILL, they remain in positions to dictate the dress codes and social norms of corporate America. Why? I have no freaking clue. Tell me - when were you happier with your job, your life and your financial future - the late 1990's or today? If your answer is the same as mine - you have those captains of industry to thank.

Remember those old episodes of Bewitched and the Dick Van Dyke show? Old Darin Stevens and Rob Petrie wore their gray flannel suits everywhere. They could be just sitting around the house, and they would still be wearing a suit and tie. Even in the 1960s, did anyone really do that? I can't believe they did then, and I know they don't today. When we think the corporate secret police aren't looking, we wear jeans, shorts, sneakers and t-shirts. We have no problem being seen by our neighbors, friends and family wearing casual clothes - and yet on Monday morning we set aside our own preferences to satisfy the whims of the people in the corner offices.

They say things like "We must project a professional business image" and "It shows respect for our customers" - I say: Bullcrap! It's about control - the ability for an executive to dictate and control every employee in a very personal way. That exercise of power gets them off - and it makes them feel better about their own self-doubts. It makes me wonder what those executives are attempting to compensate for - but I'll let you fill-in your own details. They also use the "slippery-slope" argument to claim that if there wasn't a dress code that employees would show up wearing gangsta' baggies, Hitler costumes and G-strings. I have a simple solution to that - how about we simply let people wear whatever they want AND we let everyone else point at the stupid people and laugh derisively? There's nothing like good 'ol peer pressure to weed out the outliers who haven't got the sense to know the difference between casual and idiotic. Let's face it, there are some people that it just doesn't matter what they wear, they will still end up with their picture on

To those who say "What's the big deal, it makes your boss happy, just do it!" I say, you're right, how I'm dressed shouldn't be a big deal - in fact, it shouldn't matter at all! I think what we need is collective courage - the courage to stand up, pull off the corporate noose, put on our jeans, and show the task masters that we will take this idiocy no longer. I'm mad as hell, and I don't think you should take it any more! So - lead the charge - convince all of your co-workers that they should dress however they want every day. Tell your boss to pound sand - make them decide whether wearing slacks and a tie is more important than running the business.

And what became of Beau Brummell? His lifestyle eventually caught up with him. He was buried in debt, and he died alone, penniless and insane from syphilis. That's hot!