I Just Work Here
January 29, 2012
Good news for facial-hair enthusiasts. After six decades of flagrant beardscrimination, Walt Disney Co. has lifted its ban on employee goatees and other face fuzz.
It's a bold move by a notoriously conservative company. As Walt Disney himself once did not say, "Having a scruffy 18-year-old working in my theme park might offend guests who've come to see a 5-foot-tall, shirtless mouse and his pal, the duck with no pants."
The loosening of dress-code rules at Disney is a definitive sign that the buttoned-down crowd is losing the war against casual work attire. Yet there remains much confusion over the issue.
What is "casual" apparel? How do I know what's right or wrong to wear to work? Why does everybody stare at my footie pajamas during staff meetings?
Let me first reveal my biases.
I believe that if I was meant to wear pants, God would have made my waist smaller. My goal in life is to become the world's leading advocate for office-appropriate sweatpants. I last wore a tie in 2001, and that was on a dare. (And it was a tie that played music.)
With that out of the way, let's examine the realities. I spoke with Neil Howe, author of "Millennials in the Workplace" and president of the consulting firm LifeCourse Associates.
He said the Boomer generation launched the casual-dress movement, followed by Generation X, which, during the halcyon days of Silicon Valley, pushed the envelope even further, wearing flip-flops to board meetings and generally confounding the old-timers in suits.
Those substantial shifts in work appearance have left a wildly varying mix of standards. Some industries maintain a formal appearance, others go all-in on casual and many sit somewhere in between.
That, Howe said, has left the Millennial generation (people born between 1982 and 2004) a bit confused and longing for some hard and fast rules: "Millennials are actually more likely than older generations to say that their employers do not do a good job at explaining dress and appearance conventions to their employees. What they want is predictablitly and a framework in which they can work."
Meanwhile, the Boomers and Gen-Xers "don't make it explicit because they think that making a code would upset young people. But that's absolutely not true."
If younger workers are confused about what to wear or not, it's likely creating confusion for non-Millennials as well.
"I'm totally confused today," Howe said. "I go out to Viacom or Time Warner and no one wears a tie or even a coat. Then I go across town to JP Morgan and everyone wears a tie, everyone's wearing suits. It depends on the part of the country, it depends on the type of company."
So what do you do?
First off, management people, SPELL OUT YOUR DRESS CODE. Don't just tell employees that "business casual" is acceptable. Business casual is an amorphous term, and one person's khakis and tucked-in shirt is another's tank top and PJ pants. Hammer out a dress code that provides specific examples, including situations where spiffier dress is necessary.
If you're an employee, use some common sense. If you're in front of customers, it's reasonable that you will want to look nicer than if you're behind a desk all day.
Outside of directly asking a supervisor what you can and can't wear, Amanda Haddaway, author of "Destination Real World: Success after Graduation," suggests that "if you're dressing like your manager or the people in the next hierarchical level of the company, you are probably appropriate for the workplace."
And please — please, please, please — don't get too self-righteous about your freedom to be who you are. I'm all for bold expressions of personality — that's why I have "Thug Life" tattooed on my forehead — but rarely is freedom of 9-to-5 self-expression worth losing a job.
Jessica Simko, author of the upcoming book "Why Can't I Be Me?", said: "If you're going to be working with older professionals, you're going to have to be a little more traditional in how you operate. I think when (the Millennials) come up and they're in senior level positions, everything will be different. But for now, you have to conform."
That said, she advises companies against over-regulating employees.
"I feel like jobs need to be based on whether you're doing them well or not," Simko said. "That's what matters at the end of the day. Companies need to look at employees more as humans and recognize that not everyone looks the same or dresses the same."
So good for Walt Disney for finally letting its employees have neatly trimmed beards. And good for any company that strikes a balance between its image and the comfort and freedom of expression of the people who make the company work.
Which reminds me, I need to stop at the dry cleaners and pick up my sweatpants and "Where's the Beef?" T-shirt.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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