“I can’t believe the way these young associates come to work!” Chris told me after a recent presentation. “Where did they get the idea that ‘business casual’ means cut-off shorts, flip-flops and a tank top?”
That certainly wasn’t the first time I had heard the rumblings of a bewildered employer lamenting the haphazard fashion sense and grooming habits of her young hires. It was, however, disconcerting to hear this particular comment coming from the senior partner of an acclaimed management consulting firm that systematically recruits MBA’s from the nation’s top business schools.
WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE, TOTO
In case you haven’t noticed, casual Friday has crept its way into the other four days of the workweek, and it’s brought with it a new interpretation of the term ‘casual’. In a business climate hungry for upgrades, professional attire is one bar that has been lowered.
Look around. How often in your daily travels do you encounter young professionals (or any aged professionals, for that matter) whose personal appearance leaves you scratching your head wondering if you’ve been suddenly teleported to some kind of alternate universe? Whether they are exposing more skin than you’d care to see, showing off a veritable art gallery of tasteless tats and piercings, or looking as though they’ve lost a bet with an inebriated hair stylist, poor taste in professional appearance is pandemic.
STEPPING IN TO TEACH WHAT PARENTS HAVEN’T
“Do I have to just grit my teeth and accept this as the new normal, or should I stop them dead in their tracks and instill the fear of God in them?” Chris asked.
“Neither,” I said. Then I suggested the following 3-pronged approach.
1. Clarity Problems occur when your definition of business casual is different from theirs. To avoid ambiguity, clearly spell out what you mean by that term — and similar terms — in your dress code policy. And if you can do this in the interview process so they know what is expected as far as personal appearance as a condition of accepting the job, you’re going to save a lot of friction down the road when they feel you’re suddenly trying to change a behavior they have grown comfortable with and see as an entitlement.
2. Compliment One of Dale Carnegie’s fundamental principles for winning friends and influencing people is to “give the other party a fine reputation to live up to.” In other words, compliment them into a pattern of behavior. As hard as it may seem, when you see one of your associates who needs some parental advice on dressing/grooming, try to focus on the positive and acknowledge what you see that you like. If Darren is wearing slacks so wrinkled that it appears as though he slept in them, compliment him on the fit of his jacket, or the shine on his shoes. Realizing that you notice his attire and that it matters to you will resonate with him. The next time you see him with slacks that have been pressed, call attention to the extra time he took to do this and he’ll probably think twice before wearing them any other way in the future. You don’t have to ignore problems; just choose your battles carefully, and do your best to be positive while giving your people a positive reputation to live up to.
3. Compare & Contrast I recently presented for the staff of Universal Technical Institute in Dallas. UTI students are being trained for careers as technicians and mechanics in the automotive industry. Those that aspire to work for the top auto manufacturers and dealerships need to present a neat and tidy image. That’s why at the end of each hallway in their impressive campus is a mirror with a life-sized graphic of a neatly attired automotive technician. Above the mirror is a sign reading, “Is this the first impression I want to make?” or “Would you hire you?”
When it comes to appearance, remember that ‘show’ is always more effective than ‘tell’. The less you leave up to personal interpretation, the better.
ON POINT – Imagine the impact a full length mirror and graphic of a sharply dressed professional could have in a high-end consulting firm…