Dress for Duress
The title, of course, is a riff on the book that started the image consulting business, John T. Molloy's Dress for Success Book and its sequels, The Women's Dress for Success Book and Live for Success and the 1988 revision The New Dress for Success Book.
We at Edison have been frequently provided guidance regarding our attire, and the Illuminator has chronicled several times that we've all been cautioned: Oct 29, 2008 (we were invited to wear Halloween costumes so long as they didn't incorporate bluejeans), November 21, 2008 (a faculty member's dean was advised to correct his dress because he'd worn denim and tennis shoes), and May 31, 2009 (a comment on the annual "casual summer" announcement). Rather than simply responding occasionally, perhaps it's time for us to provide a comprehensive and scholarly exploration of the issues of image generally.
It's big topic, and so we'll split it up into discrete subtopics. This entry will concentrate on the image consulting industry, which is generally recognized to have started with John T. Molloy and his popular-press books that promised to help the cubicle creatures of America to get hired or promoted into better jobs.
While Mr. Molloy is no longer with us, his ideas remain in his books but also in the websites of countless image consultants. Molloy personally weighed in on the industry he started in his New Dress for Success Book on page 3 passim Why Image Consultants are Dangerous.
Molloy derides most of those who rushed to fill the demand for image consultants that he'd created. His legitimate complaint is that the image consultant newbies had not researched the issue and so lacked data on which to base recommendations, often leading to catastrophe. The most extreme case he cites appears on pages 5-6:
A large midwestern industrial giant bought a small high-tech firm on the Coast several years ago....As soon as they took control they sent a vice-president out to run the operation. When he arrived he took one look at the employees and decided he would have to clean up their act. He sent for an image consultant he had known in the Midwest who had worked for the mother company and had done a terrific job. The consultant had talked to several groups of industrial salesmen and told them, if they would dress conservatively, they would sell more, and sure enough they did. When the consultant arrived at the California firm she took one look at the engineers and gave them the same message. She also told them to shave their beards and mustaches. When several employees objected to this directive and went in and complained to the vice-president, he told them he stood behind her orders. They packed their bags and left. Four of them were research people, two were top sales people, and one was an accountant. To make matters worse, three of the engineers and the accountant opened a competitive firm, and convinced a dozen of the best employees of the previous firm to follow them. According to the president of the midwestern firm, that consultant's advice cost his firm anywhere from one million to four million dollars...
So the potential for harm from bad image consulting is tangible. In the course of my graduate studies in communication, I was able to study Molloy's research and other sources, and my testimony is that I find it compelling. A good set of expectations for attire is important to the success of any organization, a bad set of expectations might lead to disaster. While most critical thinkers (including John T. Molloy) regret the need to dress in ways dictated by others' prejudices, nevertheless that's necessary for the greatest success.
So how should guidelines for attire be developed? Molloy and others insist that there is no universal set of guidelines. An individual should dress differently depending on the region of the nation, the type of business, the post you hold in the business, the type of customers you serve and the nature of your contact with them, and the slow changes that occur in business fashion.
To try to help businesses develop guidelines, Molloy offered the following principles in his New Dress for Success Book, pages 335-336.
There are a few general rules to keep in mind when planning a company's dress code:
First: Executives at corporate headquarters, sales and marketing people and the men who represent the public in the company eye should dress conservatively. This conservative, traditional image will announce to your white-collar workers, the general public and your customer that yours is a reliable, conservative company and can be trusted.
Second: Although there should be a genreal dress code, each branch, each division and each office in each section of the country should be able to argue that they should be exempted from part or all of the dress code, and, if their arguments are valid, they should be listened to.,,,
Third: Executives in charge of blue-collar workers should dress like the workers.
Fourth: If your company sells several products or services to a number of customers in different businesses and to different sections of the country, you will probably need a flexible dress code for your salespeople...
Fifth: Never let unqualified people choose your company's uniforms. This includes the head of human resources who knows no more about clothing than any other executive, any woman just because she likes clothing and dresses well (including the wife of the president), the uniform companies who are experts at creating uniforms, not images and finally, committees of employees...there is only one way of getting a less effective uniform than the ones chosen by employee committees, and that is to insist that the uniform include the company colors or, even worse, the colors in the company logo. If you do, you can end up with an outfit like the one that many Century 21 agents refuse to wear...
So, according to the father of the image consulting industry, Edison has done its dress code all wrong.
coming: let's explore what the dress code ought to be for different jobs at Edison--according to the experts.