Strutting the corporate runway Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

How would you react if you walked into your attorney’s office and found him adorned in mesh shorts, flip-flops and a sleeveless neon tee? What if your doctor stepped into your exam room wearing an Armani suit instead of a lab coat?

Though both scenarios are absurd, they represent the stringent ties between fashion and expectation on the runway of corporate America.

“When people contact any kind of (professional), they have a preconceived notion of what that relationship ought to be, one of which is what the person looks like,” says Steve Ellis, partner at Tucker Ellis & West LLP. “If we show up in shorts and clogs, we’re going to start off with an issue.”

Most businesspeople have no trouble strutting comfortably down the middle of the style continuum. As Ellis says, “We all live in the middle of the bell curve, and I don’t know if there’s a great challenge to it.”

That’s not to say that some guidance isn’t helpful. There will always be outliers whose previous experiences or lack of self-awareness skew their perceptions of acceptable garb. To steer these exceptions toward the rule, a well-devised dress code can lead to a perfect fit.

To begin, Ellis says you need to come up with a list of things that do and do not qualify for either business dress or business casual.

“There are 10 items in any category for top wear, bottom wear or footwear,” he says. “Most people sort of roll their eyes because it goes without saying, but it’s not every person. For that very small group of people, a list may be helpful.”

Ellis says you should avoid going overboard when you’re devising your own list of acceptable apparel.

“If you have an endless list, the conclusion is that the employer essentially thinks everyone is stupid,” he says. “People are perfectly capable of applying general rules.”

But once you define those general rules, it certainly helps to set the example.

“I would ensure that you and your senior leaders dressed in the manner that you wanted others to follow,” Ellis says. “If you’re serious about having a business casual or a casual summer dress, the leadership has to dress that way. If they show up in a suit on Friday or during the summer, most people will follow that lead and come to the conclusion that the published dress code isn’t the real dress code.”

Reinforcing the dress code entails more than simple modeling, though. Even though most employees will have no trouble mirroring the general norms, you’ll inevitably still have to confront individuals who either come up a little short or miss the boat completely.

For the former, Ellis suggests taking them aside and pointing out any discrepancies.

“We’ll have a conversation behind closed doors and just point out what’s occurring and why it’s important,” he says.

For the latter — those show-stoppers who have become a source of tension in the work-place — Ellis says that a private conversation is not enough.

“If somebody is really out there, we’ll send them home,” he says. “We’ll say, ‘Here’s the list. We ask you to return with something more along these lines.’”

In most cases, Ellis says it’s not hard to provide some rationale for your enforcement. If you frame the dress code within the context of the success of that individual and the company, most employees are more than happy to oblige.

“There is real value in helping people understand why a dress code is important,” he says. “If you put it in the context of how these rules advance the interests of this organization, and therefore, their own careers, they’ll get on board in a heartbeat.”

HOW TO REACH: Tucker Ellis & West LLP, (216) 592-5000 or www.tuckerellis.com

Dressing for success

There’s a big difference between mindlessly following a dress code and dressing to impress. Randy Diamond has been helping executives do the latter for years as co-owner of Diamond’s Men’s Stores and, more recently, as regional director of custom clothier Astor & Black.

Here are his tips to help you stroll confidently down the office runway.

 

  • Buy for fit. “Make sure you buy a garment that is the correct fit. We don’t want to be sold into something that requires a lot of alterations. I would rather have a lesser garment that fits me well than one that is an Armani $2,000 garment that’s not fitting properly.”

     

     

  • Buy outside of your comfort zone. “Be willing to go out of your comfort zone when you dress. We need to sort of look at the way that other (people) are dressing, and if we like it, don’t think that that’s not for me because that’s wrong.”

     

     

  • Buy from a trusted retailer. “It’s important to establish a relationship with a person or a store where you have a lot of confidence. If you put on a garment and you think it looks great, you need somebody there to say, ‘Are you sure you want to buy that?’”

     

     

  • Buy quality. “Whatever your budget is, it’s better to buy less and to buy quality because it will last, and you’ll enjoy wearing it.”

     

HOW TO REACH: Astor & Black Custom Ltd., www.astorandblack.com or (216) 402-6666