Neels & Company - Strategic Business Communication
Trusted Advisor
Gretchen Neels
Gretchen Neels, President, Neels & Company

Dear Trusted Advisor

Dear T.A.:
We have a number of young people who like to wear headphones while they work. It doesn’t bother me, but some of the partners don’t like it. I wonder if we should address it in a staff meeting. Are they really working, or just goofing off?
M.S., Administrator, Washington, DC

Dear M.S.:
No, they are working! Millennials are used to having lots of background effects and actually get more done while plugged in. I recommend clients establish guidelines for headphone use, such as they should only be used at a person’s desk, not while in a meeting or walking around public areas, etc. Telling a Millennial she can’t work while wearing headphones, is like telling Denny Crane to lose the flashy ties and cuff links – it wouldn’t be the same.

Next Issue:
Five Ways to Retain Young Professionals at Your Firm

Soft Skills: They're Not so Hard

Is it any wonder that Millennials entering the workforce in droves this fall will often choose to wear clothing so inappropriate as to be sent home to change? Look at their role models: super-geek gazillionaire internet start-up kings who often look as though they just rolled out of bed for the New York Times photo op. “If Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) can wear baggy jeans and Adidas sandals, all the way to the bank, why not me?” think many a young professional.

This problem is so pervasive, my seminar series on managing the Millennial generation is entitled From Flip-Flops to Fully Functional. People instantly get the visual – young, enthusiastic, bright people who undermine themselves by wearing beachwear to the office. My advice to managers is, don’t tolerate it, and to twenty-somethings, don’t even think about it.

How did we go from dressing up to go to work five days a week to putting on shorts and a T-shirt for the office in July? The movement originated in the early 1990s at high-tech firms in Silicon Valley, and moved eastward faster than you could say “Birkenstocks,” taking almost every industry with it, with dreadful results.

Mary Lou Andre, a nationally recognized wardrobe, dress code and corporate image consultant, says that the pendulum is indeed swinging back toward more formal attire. Andre reports, “Many clients are asking me to get away from the business casual terminology and train people to ’step it up’ and dress in a way that sets a business tone.”

The good news is that just as individuals set themselves apart by bringing their wardrobes up a notch, so too will the professional services firm that decides it will return to a more traditional look. It’s not a question of expecting associates to wear an Armani suit every day, but don’t think for a moment that clients won’t notice when the rumpled golf shirts and khakis are traded in for a button down, tie, and real shoes for gentlemen. Ladies have a bit more latitude, but please, I beg of you, no more exposed tummies, bare arms, cleavage or visible underclothes.

You are your brand – everything from your posture, your handshake, how you speak, and how you dress tells the world who you are. Like it or not, first impressions are made with lightening speed, well before the first word is spoken. Each member of an organization, from the receptionist to the managing partner, in turn represents the corporate brand. It’s absurd for a law firm to spend $1 million on an ad campaign touting their professionalism, while at the same time allowing associates to dress like bicycle messengers. Many one-on-one coaching sessions start with the same lame excuse, “But Gretchen, I always dress appropriately when I meet with clients.”

Here’s the thing: you never know who is around the corner, on the airplane or in the elevator. When you look good, you feel good, and that is the basis of confidence, the cornerstone of a successful professional (Zuckerberg notwithstanding).

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If you’re considering modifying your firm’s dress code, you may find the following resources helpful:

Ready to Wear, An Expert’s Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe, Mary Lou Andre

Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body, Clinton Kelly, Stacy London

Business Etiquette 101 – 30 Absolutely, Never Evers for Business, Dining & First Impressions, Gretchen Neels

We provide soft skills training and consulting to professional services firms covering all areas of business communication.

Neels & Company – Strategic Business Communication
P. O. Box 623, Boston, MA 02117
800-975-7031 ext. 701
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