A little while ago, I heard (for the second time) a segment of the BBC Radio 4 show Women’s Hour which talked about dress codes at work. It made me think about my own experience.
I am a bit out of the ordinary for both my company and indeed the whole sector. I go to work in a suit. Up until my last job, about seven years ago, I would also have worn a tie. Why is this?
Well, for one thing, my parents were that much older than those of my contemporaries when I was born, in 1957. So I grew up in a family where the expectation was that men would go to work in formal work attire, and casual clothes were something that really didn’t exist, not in my parents’ world of the 1930s and 40s when they grew up. (The fact that my father had been an Army drill sergeant might also have had something to do with it.)
Then I went to work in a very traditionalist organisation, the British Civil Service. For the first ten years, I was public-facing and so collar and tie was required. I then moved to the water regulator, Ofwat, and for the first five years I was effectively in the Director General’s outer office. We could have FTSE100 company chairman passing through, Ministers of the British or overseas governments, or any other sort of VIP. And as I was located in the press office, there was an outside chance that I might – if everyone else had been out of the office or otherwise engaged – have had to do broadcast media interviews. (I was a long way down the pecking order, so my appearance on tv would have been a sign that something really, really had gone south in a Big Way, but it was nonetheless a possibility. )
For the next fifteen years, although I was not so directly exposed, my work was nonetheless quite important to the organisation and so there was always the possiblity that VIPs might be brought round to be shown the leading edge troops, shovelling data into the digital furnaces down in Ofwat’s engine room. And I also had to liase and sometimes visit or recieve senior people from the water or civil engineering industries. So collar and tie remained the order of the day.
(Meanwhile, in my former employer, the social security department, there had been a change after one chap whose job was 100% behind the scenes was disciplined for not observing the dress code. This escalated into a full-blown Employment Tribunal on sex discrimination grounds, as women in the same job were not required to observe any particular dress code. Before this was settled – in the worker’s favour – there was the spectacle of dozens of junior civil servants suddenly discovering a previously-unknown Scots heritage and turning up to the office in kilts, as ethnic dress was exempt from departmental dress codes. Yes, it all got rather silly.)
After I left Ofwat, I was freelancing and so, from time to time, had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; on a couple of occasions, turning up to a consultancy job in a silver Mercedes and showing up in the corporate conference room suited and booted got me not only listened to respectfully but also paid on time!
As I said earlier, I lost the tie in my previous job, as there was a CEO there who wore a suit but an open-necked shirt. He was quite innovative in other ways; that company ran a call centre for taking facilities calls from shops and offices up and down the country, and finding plumbers or electricians or maintainance engineers local to the caller to go out and address these jobs. The CEO took a rather egalitarian attitude to his work, and once a month would block out one morning so he could go and sit on the call centre, not just to be seen at the workface, but actually to put on a headset and take calls. This certainly endeared him to me; sadly, a lot of the Board and the company’s owners weren’t so enlightened and in due course, he went, not long before I did.
When I took up that job, I had to move to get an easier commute; and some of my belongings had to go into storage. I took on a storage unit on a farm not far from my former home, and when I went to see the unit and shake hands on the agreement, I noticed that the farmer and his son-in-law were calling me “sir”. I’d gone straight there from the office; so I said “Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight and drop this “Sir” business. I’m in my working clothes, you’re in yours, end of. OK?” And it was.
I now work in IT, where wearing a suit in a back-office role is distinctly eccentric. (We recently had a client user consultation group meeting, where our dress code was ‘smart casual’. “Do I have to dress down, then?” was my question.) Fortunately, a number of my colleagues, like me, have memories of the tv science fiction show Stargate: Atlantis, which oddly enough has a bearing on this. The premise of the show is that the US Air Force has come into possession of an ancient alien transport device, a ‘Stargate’, which enables easy travel to other planets, and even galaxies. In due course, the lost city of Atlantis is discovered in a distant galaxy and an expedition of soldiers, scientists and archaeologists is sent to explore it; and that expedition is led by a civilian. Towards the end of the show’s run, the civilian administrator of the expedition is replaced by a Washington lawyer, Mr. Wolseley, played by the under-rated Robert Picardo. And although whilst on duty, Wolseley wears the same uniform coveralls as other civilian staff on the expedition, when he goes off-duty, he relaxes by putting on a suit and tie.
The reason for this is, he explains, that he had his best moments as a Washington lawyer in the courtroom. That is who he is, and so that is how he feels most comfortable. And so he reflects his personality and his personal history in his clothing of choice. I identify with that character very closely! And so I wear a suit to work, because that’s how I know I’m at work, and to me it says that I take my work seriously. I’m not saying that my more casually-attired colleagues don’t take their work seriously – they do – but this is how I show it. It’s who I am.