Of Developers and Dress Codes

From a posting by one of the folks I follow on Twitter (a former Microsoft co-worker), I saw this Business Insider story on HP apparently banning t-shirts (and other casual clothing) for certain teams within the company. The story asserts that “employees are furious.” The stated reasoning, which seems sensible enough to me, is that the company does not wish to risk customers being “put off” (BI’s words) by employees who are poorly or casually dressed.sneakers-1420706-500x375


Of course, much of the fury is almost certainly overblown by the original story in an attempt to generate traffic, so probably best to take it with a grain of salt for a slow news day.

But the BI story also featured this tweet opining on the move:

My reaction was astonishment. On what planet should employers cater first to employees, and never mind their customers? One can certainly debate whether or not a customer should care about how the programmers in R&D dress, but if wearing t-shirts and jeans makes the customer less confident in the company and its ability to deliver, then HP has every right to ask that employees level up their wardrobes.

Get Off My Lawn

Lest this come across as some sort of cranky rant, let me say this. As someone who’s worked from home for the last decade or so, I value not having to worry about what to wear to the office. It’s a luxury to be able to dress however I please when I’m working from home. But as I prepare for the onset of a project that will have me working from a client office, my first thought on wardrobe wasn’t, “Gee, I wonder what the client will let me get away with?” It was, “I need to check with the team to see what the dress code is, and make sure I’m meeting or exceeding it.”

Many moons ago, when I was getting started in the I.T. industry, I got a contract job working at the Pentagon doing Windows 95 training. My earlier work was in technical theatre, and I had long hair (nearly to my waist) and earrings. I made a decision when I landed that job that while I probably could have gone into that assignment just as I was, and no one would have said anything, it wasn’t the right thing to do. Given the culture in the military, it would have been a finger in the eye to many of the people I was choosing to work with to keep my long hair and earrings. So I made the decision to cut my hair, dump the earrings (OK, one of them…kept the other a few years longer), and I sincerely believe that decision helped me move my career forward faster than had I insisted on doing things “my way.”

Dress for Success

So what’s my point, here?

I’ve got no problem whatsoever with people who want flexibility in what they wear making career choices that accommodate those desires. If you want to work in shorts and flip-flops, and you can find an employer who’s willing to indulge you in that, fine.

But at the same time, there’s a certain degree of self-indulgence and entitlement on display, particularly in the attitude that it’s HP’s customers that are the problem.  Whether we like it or not, people judge us every day by the choices we make. That may not be fair, and in some cases, it can be very wrong. But it’s also reality. And unlike things about ourselves that we cannot change, how we present ourselves is very much in our own control. If there’s something that I object to here, it’s the sense of entitlement that says, “hey, I’m a geek…no one should expect me to wear a shirt with a collar.”

So instead of being “furious” about the change, perhaps the affected developers could find a more constructive way of responding. Maybe a contest for the most interesting polo shirt they could find. Or other ways of expressing their own personal tastes within the bounds of the new policy.

And as a side-benefit, they might find that giving some thought to how others see them might open doors they never knew existed.

And lest anyone think I’m taking this too seriously, I think this is a great take on the issue (content warning on the full trailer…some suggestive themes in an earlier part of the clip):

And for the record, I have worn my Chucks to work. More than once. Sometimes, I need to step up my game, too.

Do you have thoughts on dress codes for developers? Please share them in the comments (please do keep it civil, though).

UPDATE: Another view on this, which I respect, based on the lede:

Growing up, when I heard “dress for the job you want,” I thought they meant everybody should aspire to wear suits and ties. After all, that’s what the supposedly powerful executives have, right?

Nope. It means that if you don’t want a suit job, don’t wear a suit.

“Dress for the job you want” doesn’t mean “wear a tie.” – Brent Ozar

I think that’s a perfectly fair way to approach this, because it takes into account that people have different opinions and values on this topic, and if you don’t want to conform to the standards someone else sets, you can just choose not to work with or for those folks.

Brent also points to this post on the topic of dress codes, which is perhaps a bit on the extreme side, but fun to read.


2 thoughts on “Of Developers and Dress Codes”

  1. I agree w/the pettiness of the comment but not with the desire to push back on dress codes. They are all dated perceptions based in human/animal instinct. I’m sure there are scientific reasons why we want to project a particular appearance or vision. However, the current dress codes cause us to crank the A/C and are contributing to the C02 problem. There are greater reasons to lighten up at work – like saving earth. I’m no militant tree-hugging type of guy and as a consultant, I conform to the code. But, that doesn’t make it right!
    As for impressions – Google, Facebook, etc. no is asking them to get rid of their hoodies.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m a fan of the old adage that “perception is reality”. While I think each employer has to decide for themselves where the line is, I think there is a line between professional and sloppy, and that’s not just a matter of perception.

      Google, Facebook, and other SV companies live in a different world than companies like HP, Avenade, etc., so it’s only natural to expect that there would be differences in the work environment.

      I suspect you and I see this a little differently, but I appreciate you sharing your view!

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