Casual Confidence: More to Dress Down Than Meets the Eye

On Wednesday, a group of Nexxt-ers organized “Weinlick Wednesday.” I dressed up, wearing a button-down and tie even though I had no outside meetings. And, everyone else wore a black t-shirt and jeans.


[Photo: Weinlick Wednesday crew with Joe Weinlick at center]

A little exposition is probably in order for those who don’t know me. For the past several years, my standard work attire has been jeans and a black t-shirt–perhaps with an open button-down when it is colder. I joke, with some truth, that I do it because I am lazy. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he wears the same color t-shirt every day–gray in his case–so he doesn’t have to worry about what to wear. Steve Jobs had his trademark black turtleneck.

But, there are deeper reasons than laziness in my case, and I suspect for Zuckerberg and Jobs as well. In a sense, it is my uniform. Unlike Zuckerberg, I didn’t start out having earned this uniform. It came from years of learning who I was, and gaining confidence that it was okay to be me at work.

Marc Brownstein, my former boss while I was at Brownstein Group Advertising, deserves a lot of credit for helping me down this path. One day he dropped by my office and asked if I could join him on a sales call. I was wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and sporting a three-day growth, and demurred that I wasn’t really dressed for it. He gave me the same advice he often did–be comfortable being yourself, they want your ideas not your clothes. I went as is. We won the business. And, I became friends with the client, and had the opportunity to ask him a few years later what they thought of on that first day–a grizzled guy in casual clothes addressing a room of people impeccable dressed in suits. Scott–that was his name–said, “We weren’t looking for us. We had us. We were looking for something different.”

In the advertising agency world, dressing down isn’t different. Rather, it’s expected attire. I liked the casual nature, which has a freeing effect that can promote creativity. But, in my case, dressing in whatever I happened to grab every day could also lead to, or be emblematic of, an undisciplined mental state. Adjusting to fatherhood, with a young boy and girl, I felt I was losing focus personally and professionally. My waistline agreed, evidenced by the increasingly larger sizes I was wearing.

At one very clear point that I remember well, I decided to retake control. I started exercising seven days a week. I became more disciplined in my organization. And, as I needed to buy new clothes as I lost weight, I decided to buy clothes indicative of who I was and who I wanted to be.  Thus, my uniform was born. Black t-shirt. Fashionable jeans. Dress shoes.  A balance of individuality, creativity, and comfort with discipline, efficiency, and presentability.

There was a moment at my last job when I had to decide whether to maintain this uniform. I had gone to work at another agency–Godfrey Advertising–as a change agent. I started the job dressing up a little more, as was the norm at that Agency. But it struck me early on that in order to effect change, I had to demonstrate that it was okay for people to be themselves and to go against the grain. I had to give the agency the same advice Marc Brownstein had given me. So I went back to jeans and a black t-shirt. When I left that agency to join Nexxt, one account executive thanked me, saying, “You made it okay to come to work wearing jeans.”

A small victory, and perhaps one previous generations would question or ridicule. But, it was a victory, and it wasn’t about jeans. It was about the ability to be yourself at work, and the ability to focus on the work–the ideas, the creativity, the inspiration–rather than the dress.

Which brings me to Nexxt, where I also decided to keep my uniform. And to Weinlick Wednesday, which helped crystallize for me why I wear the uniform. Having my colleagues dress in black t-shirts in good-natured jest was touching. And, dressing up was a good reminder of how much clothes can effect mindset. Suit and tie have their place, and–as my high school football coach used to say when he made us dress up before a big game–they do promote mental discipline and focus.

How does this relate to human resources and employment? A few lessons I have learned:

Casual Dress is a perk that doesn’t hit the bottom line. There are many ways outside of salary and benefits in which HR can impact company culture and employee morale. Giving employees the flexibility to be themselves is a great perk.

Casual doesn’t mean anything goes. Casual dress codes also have their pitfalls, and the challenge is finding a way to encourage employees to dress in a way that is meaningful to them and allows them to be most productive in accomplishing their responsibilities.  And, appropriate clothing can vary by day. Certain days and situations require different attire. I may have won the business noted above unshaven and in jeans, but I still dress up for important meetings.

Find ways to break the routine. Mixing it up–having exceptions to the dress code–are a great way to not let people fall into a rut attire-wise. A group at Nexxt started, “tie Tuesday,” which created the prompt to get me to wear a tie on Weinlick Wednesday. Nexxt also has “shorts and flip-flop Fridays” on a few days over the summer.

Let the company brand inform dress codes. Attire should be tied to company culture and purpose. I don’t want my banker going to work in shorts and a t-shirt. I’d prefer the contractor fixing my kitchen window not show up in a suit. Company brands are built from the inside out, and how employees dress is emblematic of how they view their job and the company.

Casual is not without responsibility. It took me many years to discover and be able to wear my uniform, and it will probably evolve again at some point. Early in my career, I had to find ways to demonstrate my personality within a more formal dress code. The way employees dress reflects on the company. Perhaps we need to evolve beyond “casual,” and figure out how to write alternative dress codes. IBM famously required white button-down shirts and wing-tipped shoes. Today, most businesses eschew that type of conformity. But can we cultivate more open, 21st century codes?

Side note, I am writing this article on Thursday, once again clad in black t-shirt and jeans. I am also wearing a gray button-down, but it is unbuttoned. Perfect attire for writing an early morning blog post.

Nexxt is a recruitment media company that uses today’s most effective marketing tactics to reach the full spectrum of talent – from active to passive, and everything in between. Learn more about hiring with Nexxt.

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