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Why Does My Boss Think My Wearing a Suit and Tie Makes Me Better at My Job?

And other questions you’d rather not ask your own HR department

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

Admittedly, I’m in an industry — real estate — where pretty much everyone still wears a jacket, shirt and tie. That, however, isn’t my style. I’m much more relaxed and couldn’t care less about suits. My boss, is the complete opposite. He very much believes in the old maxim, “Dress to impress.” But he must understand this is a bullshit saying and not a real thing, right? — Chris W., New York City
Two iconic books from the 1950s about corporate life — The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Organization Man — may be permanently etched on your boss’s brain. That’s the only explanation I can give for why s/he can’t get over the 1950s paradigm of the business suit as the armor for all good corporate soldiers. Such a dress code and the ubiquitous leather suitcase shouted success in the good ol’ days — watch Mad Men reruns and see what I mean.

These days, however, things are much, much different. Sure, there are some professions that may still require their employees to wear suits — bankers, limo drivers and undertakers spring to mind (as well as your industry — realty). But the notion that suits are the only appropriate attire to convey power, authority and respect has been disappearing since the 1970s. Some have traced the decline to the introduction of the leisure suit, while others point to the spread of Casual Fridays in the 1980s and ‘90s.

In most organizations, appropriate dress is less about the company’s dress code (see my earlier article about wearing shorts at work for more on that meaningless exercise) and more about company culture. What does the CEO wear? What do top executives wear?

Failing that, take a page from Mark Zuckerberg, who says he wears a gray T-shirt and hoodie every day because “I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible, other than how to best serve this community.” That should give your boss pause to remember that it’s not the suit, it’s the power of the person — regardless of whether s/he’s in jeans or a tie.

How tolerant does my employer have to be of my beliefs? Not religious beliefs, necessarily, but just my principles. Say they wanted me to wear a uniform that I knew was made under sweatshop conditions, or cold-call people when I think cold-calling is rude and immoral. Can they fire me for objecting, or are they obliged to accommodate me? — Nathan P., Utah
Sorry, Nathan — there are no protections at work to accommodate your personal principles. You’re talking about ethics and morality, not legal standing — i.e., I don’t see any race, religious or gender issues in the examples you raise. If you find cold-calling objectionable, then don’t take a job as a solicitor, since it’s an essential element of almost all in-house sales positions or telemarketing. Unless you find that there’s underlying potential discrimination going on — e.g., a different pitch and pricing based on zip code or first name — either quit or get fired.

That said, there’s always the opportunity to be a crusader for your moral rights. Nothing is stopping you from explaining to management your opposition to clothing manufactured in sweatshops. After all, cities have passed ordinances that require employee uniforms to only be purchased by companies signing affidavits that sweatshop labor wasn’t used in their manufacture. Similarly, depending on how deeply held your convictions regarding work assignments are, you can always find like-minded folks, especially politicians, who may warm to your positions.

That’s when your company may follow suit — if for no other reason than it’s a great PR hook for them.

Let’s settle this once and for all: Whose job is it to clean out the fridge at work? Is it on the staff to keep it in good shape, or that the cleaners’ job? — Lori H., Conroe, TX
Some thoughts from one of my favorite seminars—Cleaning the Fridge Etiquette 101:

  • If it’s your mess — whether it’s spilled milk on the fridge or floor — you need to clean it immediately.
  • If the company has a cleaning crew, make sure that cleaning the fridge is included on their “to-do” list. Also, make sure you post the routine so everyone can see it. For example: “ANYTHING LEFT IN FRIDGE AT THE END OF THE WEEK WILL BE TOSSED ON FRIDAY AT 7 P.M. BY THE CLEANING CREW.” (Complain to the facilities manager if the work isn’t done regularly or to your satisfaction, because your company is paying for competent service.)
  • If your team is responsible for cleaning the fridge, ensure that people understand they need to clean their own messes. Then have a rotating schedule for tossing things at the end of the week. This means everything goes, even the containers and bags that say DO NOT TOUCH.
  • Once every season, the fridge needs a deep clean — the drawers and shelves are removed, washed, dried and replaced. The walls of the fridge are washed down as well. Nobody wants to do this, so you can either draw straws or the team does it together and everyone shares a six-pack.

Let me add two important caveats: First, there are people who may leave medicine (e.g., insulin) in the fridge and ask that it not be tossed. This is a bad idea. Medicine is one of the first items to be stolen from a fridge. So someone who has medicine that needs to be refrigerated should keep it in a container that goes home with them at the end of every week. Second, if there’s an OCD clean freak on the premises, bribe them with a Starbucks gift card and let them take care of the job for you the next year. Beyond the free coffee, they get deep satisfaction from the fact that their workspace is spotless.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at askterry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.