During a lively and entertaining recent debate my employment law students at Loughborough University considered the ongoing issue of women wearing high-heeled shoes at work. The debate essentially centered upon the needs of businesses to maintain professional appearances versus the rights of women to not be forced to wear clothing that may be injurious to their health or even sexually objectifying.
A similar discussion presents itself in relation to men and the wearing of ties in the workplace. When I reconvened my management career in 2005 following completion of my MA in HRM at Leeds University Business School I found myself working cheek and jowl with a National Account Director (NAD). For my part I was managing the holistic HR activity for a business unit turning over in excess of £35 million per annum. The NAD in question was an ex-RAF man who held very firm views in terms of what constituted acceptable standards of business attire.
In particular my colleague insisted that I and the rest of his leadership team wore a tie. On one occasion he even subjected me to the slightly uncomfortable experience of showing me how to tie a half-Windsor knot. By this I mean that he undid and re-tied my tie for me. I haven’t forgotten how to tie a half-Windsor to this day. This was his way of articulating and reinforcing his expectations. His logic, to a certain extent, appeared reasonably sound. In his view senior managers set the standards that others should aim to achieve. He believed that standards of dress were a key aspect of this. At that point in time I still rarely wore a tie though. But I always had an “emergency” collection of ties in my business bag for meetings and social gatherings where my NAD would be present.
It wasn’t that I did not understand the importance of pleasing my boss and then pleasing myself. It wasn’t that I did not agree that a tie made a particular statement either. In fact I was once told to leave the billiard room in the Officers’ Mess at Deepcut Barracks for removing my jacket during a pre-Regular Commissions Board visit. I was instead, perhaps, simply of the view that being told/forced to dress in a certain way was somewhat draconian and even oppressive. Perhaps it was even a subconscious push back on my part against my late 80’s/early 90’s grammar school experiences of straight ties, smart blazers and two inch high embroidered names on PE clothing. This appearance did nothing in those days to curry favour with the numerous other non-selective schools that poured in to Halifax town centre each night after school along with ours, and I knew it.
As time has gone by, however, I became more and more of a habitual tie wearer. I have often wondered whether this is due to social conditioning of the kind described above or simply due to getting older. I will be forty next month after all. Perhaps a monocle and a walking cane come next. Looking at my extensive business wardrobe recently I noted that I now have a very impressive collection of silk ties, pocket squares and a variety of personalised business dress items including collar stiffeners, cuff links and tie pins. So impressive is my collection that I think even my NAD would be envious. Even Charles Tyrwhitt himself might be!
But with the summer months fast approaching and my students’ valuable debate still fresh in mind I find myself wondering whether dressing like a colonial administrator of the 1890’s actually makes any real difference? Would my appearance minus a tie mean that I will be taken less seriously as a professional? Could it result in potential employers or clients overlooking me and the significant value my expertise will bring to their businesses? I very much doubt it.
There is of course always going to be a “when in Rome” factor linked to business dress and, indeed, personal appearance generally. But in my professional world of senior Human Resources Management I actually believe that having a softer approach to business attire can often be a good thing. Let’s consider, for example, a particularly hostile employee relations issue or complex pay negotiations. Or maybe a learning and development or employee engagement situation. In all of these scenarios -and many others beside- a tie could potentially make the wrong statement compared to having an open collar, which might appear less formal and more relaxed.
I do not intend to ditch my tie collection just yet though and I will of course respect any organisation that requires a tie to be worn. But I suspect that my days of wearing a tie on a regular basis may dwindle along with the use of ties in UK businesses generally.