On Dress Codes and Pornography


dress code, 3D rendering, street signs

Strange bedfellows, huh?  Dress Code and pornography?  The title of this post should make for some interesting Google searches.  But bear me out – it has a relevance for every business.

I’m sorry to report to those curious that most of this article is about corporate dress codes and not pornography.  (Read until the end – you’ll get there eventually).

What’s going on with dress codes these days?  If you read some experts, you’ll see that businesses are trending to a more formal dress code.  Other experts believe that a more casual dress code is here to stay.

What I’d say is, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing and focus on what your culture is and what you aspire it to be, and make sure your dress code matches that culture.  Develop and enforce a policy that makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is a 10 page list of what is or isn’t permissible.  And what else doesn’t make sense is not adapting to reality, cultural trends and what employees want to wear (remember, there are way more many jobs available than qualified employees: they can somewhat dictate to us what they want).

For three years, I worked for a large, publicly traded company that mandated suits on men – not just a shirt and tie, not just a coat-and-tie, but suits at all times – even when travelling on weekends.  That restriction provided me an impetus to start my own business in 2003; the first thing I did was put a sign in my new office: “There is no *&%$#@! dress code.”  (It was part of a whole anti-corporate theme that I’d developed; I was tired of being told what and how to do things all the time).

Intellectually, the suit dress code made some sense.  The company is east-coast based, where there’s more formality expected than in California, where I was working.  But one day, marching through a dusty field to meet with the owner of a construction company in a dark blue suit, I felt completely out of place.  And the owner – in his jeans and mackinaw, looked at me like I’d stepped off the moon lander.  That’s when a dress code makes zero sense.

Today, I work closely with a CPA firm, and in every employee survey there are plaintive requests to loosen the dress code to include denim.  (The firm has what I’d call a modified business casual policy – no denim, but no ties, either.)  Employees – who work long hours during tax seasons – would appreciate the comfort of a more relaxed dress code.  The firm’s partners are concerned about what that dress code would look like to their clients who visit the office.  The clients skew conservative.  Currently, the modification is “Denim Fridays”.

One of my favorite clients has about 55 employees in West Hollywood, California.  It’s not exactly a start-up – it’s 7 years old.  But they have a start-up mentality, and most of the employees are in shorts and flip-flops every day.  (Hey, it’s California).  They keep aligned with a youthful casual culture, and that dress code encourages younger employees to work and stay at the company.  I once took a client, a bank president, to that office.  I thought he was going to have a coronary.

It’s not what everyone else does – it’s what works for you.

Another client I’ve worked with is a law firm in San Francisco.  There was an uproar when some of the partners wanted to eliminate polo-style golf shirts, which were permissible in the dress code.  It turns out that one associate wore golf shirts every day that looked like they’d been washed a thousand times: wrinkled, collars curled up and basically not law firm appropriate.  But, as I pointed out, another lawyer wore golf shirts every day and they looked great – creases on the sleeves, ironed crisply – perfectly fine.  So, the issue wasn’t golf shirts – it was how they looked on everyone.  We spoke to the employee with the wrinkled shirts – he bought new shirts and took much better care of them after that.

Which gives rise to the pornography connection.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many lawsuits came to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding obscenity in movies.  And all the Supreme Court Justices would trek down to the theater to watch each movie and determine whether it violated the 1st Amendment as obscene.  Finally, it became ridiculous, and Justice Potter Stewart, frustrated that he could not define pornography in a case, said: “I know it when I see it”.

That’s exactly what should happen with dress codes.

So much time is spend writing these codes and even more time is spent counseling employees and having angst whether to bring it up at all – it’s a waste of time!  I’ve seen dress codes that are pages long, itemize every conceivable thing an employee can or cannot wear.

Here’s what a better solution looks like:


During the interviewing process, you’ve had occasion to see how our employees dress and therefore what are expectations of your dress and appearance should be.  And we hired you because we believe you understand our culture (and vice-versa). Therefore we expect you to dress and appear in keeping with those expectations and our culture.  If you have any questions about whether to wear something, please feel free to check with your manager or Human Resources before coming to work.  And we have the right to send you home to change if we believe something you wear is not keeping with our desired culture.

So it’s not an itemized list of what you can and cannot do.  It’s not a formal or informal dress code.  It lays out expectations and really places those expectations on the employee – not HR or management.

Look at your dress code.  Is it really something that works for you today, or is it as outdated as the person who says, “We’ve always done it that way?”



Eric’s Rules of the Road


I currently have 8 HR professionals working for me.  I’ve been working with HR pros since 2001.  There’s a big difference with consulting (which is what we do) and being on staff.  When you work as an HR pro for a company, you can say ‘no, you can’t do that’.  Not so, when you’re a consultant.

So, after 18 years of working with HR consultants and with a nod to Jerry Perenchio, here are my Rules of the Road:

  1. Take 100% responsibility for your actions.
  2. Be relentless about your intellectual curiosity. Nothing makes you obsolete faster than refusing to learn new things.
  3. It’s all about results. I’m not interested in “how”; I’m interested in “if”.
  4. Never say “no”. Your job isn’t to tell someone they can’t do it, but how they can do it.
  5. Sometimes the answer may actually be “no”, but don’t you think it is about being sure that you understand the outcome the client wants to reach?
  6. Being late to a client meeting is unforgivable. Exception: calling the client and letting them know you’re running late.
  7. You’re the Option King or Queen. If a client has a challenge, your role is to present options and the risks therein.  There’s rarely just one way to solve a challenge.
  8. Mistakes are never a problem. That’s learning.  Making the same mistake twice is a problem.
  9. Never ignore an e-mail or voice mail. Even if your response is “let me get back to you tomorrow”.  Clients don’t like to be left hanging.  (Neither do I!)
  10. Have fun and project enthusiasm. No one wants to deal with a downer.
  11. Minimize drama. We’ll all live longer.
  12. Care as much about your client as your client does. (You can’t care about a client’s business more than your client cares about their business).

Are You Happy With Your HR Department?

HR Photo

CEO’s and business owners: are you happy with your HR department?  In small businesses, you might be happy with your HR person, but then take this short questionnaire.

What is your level of confidence – on a scale of 1-10 – in your HR Department to:

  • Keep up-to-date with state and federal labor laws?
  • Be accessible to employees and management?
  • Integrate automation/technology into the HR function?
  • Coordinate and offer the best possible benefits?
  • Effective coordinate and teach performance reviews?
  • Guide effective leadership and organizational strategy?
  • Manage employee relations issues?
  • Lead the Training & Development function?
  • Ensure Workplace Safety?
  • Manage employee compensation?
  • Lead the recruiting, interviewing & hiring process?

Now – tell me again: are you happy with your HR Department?

Managing Your “Supporting Actors”

In the talent management world, a great deal is written and discussed about the management of the “A” players – the best employees, or those with the highest potential.

But what about the “B” players?

First, it’s ridiculous to conclude that your entire workforce is made up of (or should only include) “A” players.  There simply aren’t that many great employees to go around, and let’s face it: Not every company is Google or Patagonia with 1,500 applicants for every position.  In the real world, you’re going to have some “B” players on your team.  And given the right direction and leadership, those employees have the capability of being extremely valuable to your organization.  A 2003 Harvard Business Review study concluded that “that companies’ long-term performance—even survival—depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players (than on A players).

Let’s use baseball as an analogy.  The great teams have superstars – the .300 hitters with 40 homeruns.  Those are your “A” players.  But teams that win the World Series invariably have several role players, sometimes called “utility” players.  This is the player that will never hit 40 homers – but can play catcher, or right field, or second base.  They’re the ones that are able to sacrifice to advance baserunners, or break up double plays – they’re the unsung heroes.  And it’s no coincidence they are sometimes called “character guys”.

In the film industry – whether you’re best supporting actor or best actor, the trophy’s the same.

In the workplace, I’d define “B” players as those who:

  • Show up for work every day, put their nose down and grind out the work;
  • Have little, if any drama associated with their presence in the workplace;
  • Stay at your company for a longer than most employees;
  • Utilize their abilities to the maximum;
  • Consistently perform good but not spectacular work; and
  • Often, their work is not what defines them – they have other priorities in life, whether it be family or a significant hobby

Give me a group of people like this, and I’ll show you a very very good workforce.

I’ve worked with a mid-sized CPA firm for a number of years, and I recall one such employee.  “Brad” was very quiet (except at the company holiday party), showed up to work every day, and was incredibly reliable.  Brad was well paid for a staff accountant, but because he was not spectacular, he never received significant promotions.

At corporate review meetings, the partners always wondered if they should let him go, because he wasn’t partner material.

My response to them was – not everyone is partner material!  Not everyone has the capability of being a CEO!  If you are under the impression that everybody in your workforce must have that potential, you’re deluding yourself.  Every workforce needs people to actually do the work, not just manage and lead.

The problem is, most managers and executives don’t know how to manage “B” players and as a result, those employees become disillusioned, lose their edge or worse, leave the company.

Here are some thoughts on how to manage “B” players:

  1. Know Who They Are. A “B” player is not a mediocre or failing employee; they are hard workers who for reasons tangible or intangible are not going to be CEO some day.
  2. Manage them the same way you do your “A” players. That is, find out what their goals are; set your expectations clearly and adapt a ‘one size fits one’ approach.
  3. Let them know their performance is valued. If a good employee sees their superstar colleague get all the recognition and rewards, they’re going to be disheartened.
  4. Make clear what their career path is. If they aren’t ever going to be an executive or manager – let them know that.  (It’s not fair to them if they’re laboring under the illusion that some day they’ll be promoted).  There are other ways of rewarding performers than simply promotions.
  5. Pay them at the top of the market. The value of the “B” player is their stability to the company as well as consistent performance.  If that employee leaves, it’s going to be really expensive, and time consuming, to replace that person with a similar performer.  It’s much less expensive to simply pay them at the top of the market.

I once worked with a commercial real estate firm that had the greatest receptionist I’ve ever seen.  When she answered the phone, she did so as if she’d been waiting for your call all day long.  Colleagues and competitors would constantly try to steal her every month.  She had been in the position for eight or nine years when she decided to apply for an promotion within the company.

The owner knew that wasn’t the best use of her skills and wanted to keep her in her role.  Their answer?  They raised her pay to 20% over what any other receptionist was making in town – and about 10-15% more than administrative assistants were being paid.  She stayed.  If she was going to leave, it wasn’t going to be because of money.

Supporting actors have an increasingly critical role in business, but they won’t flourish or remain without an intentional strategy for managing their performance and careers.






There’s no “Holy Grail” in hiring

Just last week, a client came to us asking what we thought of a proposal they’d received from a vendor.  The vendor was offering a pre-hire screening program that purports to screen out applicants who have a propensity to steal, use drugs, lie, etc.

This is a question we frequently get; it seems that every employer is looking for the ‘holy grail’ of 100% certainty in hiring.

I’ve personally interviewed thousands of candidates in my career.  I’ve seen and used virtually every personality, IQ, and behavior test in existence.  I’ve read dozens of books and worked with clients around the country on improving hiring techniques, and I know one thing. There is no ‘holy grail’ of 100% certainty in hiring.

I think I’m as good as anyone in hiring, and even with all my experience, I’m going to be wrong 20% of the time. So if there is no one thing that can give you certainty in hiring, what can you do?

For one thing, the C-Suite and HR professionals need to understand that today, a 70% or above success rate in hiring is very good.  (I’d define success as an employee who does a good job and lasts at your business for 3 years or more).

Every business is different, with their own unique culture, but here are some techniques I use when helping a company improve their hiring success rate:

  1. Train hiring managers on how to interview and what to look for.  It constantly amazes me that the vast majority of managers who interview have never actually been trained in how to interview! It’s a lot more than just providing a list of questions to ask (or not ask).
  2. Develop a better process of interviewing.  We worked with a bank in Arizona last year whose interviewing consisted of meeting with one manager who had the sole authority to hire or not.  At that time, 4 out of 5 new hires were not successful.  We redesigned their hiring process to include multiple manager interviews, a meal with potential peers, and a final interview with the CEO.  Hiring success has doubled since then.
  3. Less emphasis on an interview and more on character and culture fit.  Most industries are extremely insular.  I guarantee someone at your company knows someone who your candidate has worked for previously.  Call your contacts and networks – they’ll be a lot more open to talk to you about the potential for success than a blind call into the HR department of the previous employer where the standard response will be “That person worked here from this date to that date.”
  4. Spread a wide net.  A typical process for considering candidates might be to phone or skype screen 15-20 candidates and interview 5-10 candidates.  Yes it’s time consuming, but it will give you much more information and ability to determine the best possible hire.

After all, what could possibly be more important than who you hire?

This post was modified from an article Eric recently wrote for the Western Independent Bankers magazine.  As always, thanks to Mel Kleiman for the last sentence!