Month: March 2014

The Necktie: Fashion Statement, Phallic Symbol or Noose?

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I was in my old haunt Barnes & Noble the other day, looking for a particular title. My bookselling skills have atrophied since I worked in the business almost 15 years ago, so I asked at the information desk. I was greeted by a young man with side burns wearing a striped, button-downed shirt. He looked up the book in question, walked me over to the section, put the book in my hand, asked me if there was anything else I needed. When I said no, he told me to have a good day. In terms of service, he was polite, knowledgeable, and did all the things that I used to train booksellers to do back in the dark ages before Kindles and Nooks.

But something was missing. It took me a moment to realize what it was. The young man wasn’t wearing a tie.

When I worked for B&N, ties were required for men working on the sales floor. I don’t know when the policy changed. Most likely it was years ago, but me being the ultra-conscious fashionisto who’s lucky to have his shoes match his belt, I didn’t realize it until now.

I’m glad for the change. Working in a bookstore involves lugging large quantities of books around, shelving, bending, reaching, even cleaning the bathroom (yes, it was a glamorous life – straight out of the movie You’ve Got Mail). They’d end up getting frayed and worn, and we often ended up tucking them into our shirts to get them out of the way. Ties can also be expensive and usually require dry cleaning – not the kind of expenses you want to incur if you’re living on what a bookseller earns.

I was once told that the modern neck tie derived from the Roman practice of wearing a phallic symbol around your neck as a sign of virility and to keep the evil eye at bay. In fact, some have derided the necktie for representing male domination (remember Gordon Gekko’s red power tie?). The head of a Hanover, Germany civil servant office even banned them because she felt that they were a symbol of men’s power over women. This is the same country where, on the last Thursday before lent, women are allowed to cut off men’s ties, symbolically removing their authority – and perhaps going back to the ancient Roman’s, metaphorically removing a bit more than that.

The modern necktie got its start in the 1700s, when the Croatian mercenaries fighting for Louis XIII of France would wear pieces of cloth around their neck. The King thought them so striking that he required they be worn at royal functions. The French word for tie, Cravate, comes from the French word for the Croatians who first wore them. While neckties may have changed with the times (Yes, I owned one of those super narrow string ties back in the ’80’s) the idea of wearing a piece of fabric around your neck has not.

The necktie has waned in recent years. According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, only six percent of men said they wore a tie to work every day. Recently, Target Corporation abandoned business attire for its corporate offices, neckties included, in favor of a policy it calls Dress for the Day, requiring ties only when the situation calls for it.

For the first 15 years of my working life, I wore a tie almost every day. This included days when I was collecting shopping carts, bailing cardboard or moving car batteries leaking acid. Now that I’m at my desk most of the day, I only wear neckties on workdays when I have important meetings or presentations. In fact, it happens so seldom, that when I do wear one, my coworkers think I have a job interview with another company.

A boss of mine once told me I was doing a great job, but should wear ties more often. He didn’t say why and I didn’t ask. Since a raise and a promotion were on the line, I nodded and said sure. After that, with a tie strangling me each day, I rose to the corporate ladder to become the CEO of a major corporation.

Not really, but this boss made it sound as if regularly wearing a necktie was all that was standing in the way of my success.

There is no evidence that neckties, or business attire in general, makes you a better worker. In 2003, a study came out that got a lot of attention because it claimed that a casual workplace, sans neckties, led to greater absenteeism and lower productivity. Striking, until you realized that the study was sponsored by the Men’s Apparel Alliance. I have been unable to find out who belongs to this Alliance. Most likely, it is businesses who profit from selling more clothes. However, I wouldn’t rule out some shadowy, Illuminati like cabal that secretly longs for world domination, with ties being the leashes used to keep us minions in line.

The necktie does have it’s place. I for one, have an admitted bias. If I am attending a funeral or wedding (please, no jokes about them being the same thing) I always wear a jacket and tie. I look down on those men I don’t think could tie a Windsor knot if their lives depended on it. This bias comes from my father, who, although a carpenter by trade, always wore a suit and tie to important functions and ceremonies. To me, this is about showing respect.

In the work environment, certain meetings require a tie. I wouldn’t stand up in front of a Board of Directors without a tasteful and conservative tie on, even if they all showed up in Hawaiian shirts. And if you’re a man interviewing with me for an office position, and you come in with an open collar, I’ll hand you your rejection letter as you’re walking out the door. Do I think the tie makes you a better worker? No. However, it is a little touch that tells me that you are serious about the job, and have enough common sense to know what type of attire is called for given the situation.

Ties can also be fun. The pediatrician wearing an Elmo tie. The music teacher with a tie that has a keyboard running down it. Santa Claus ties at Christmas. These novelty ties may not be in the best taste, but they can bring a little smile to the people you make contact with throughout the day, and say something about you as a person (other than that you may have questionable fashion sense).

The necktie’s ugly step brother, the bow tie, has also come into vogue in some circles, thanks in part to the last reincarnation of Doctor Who played by Matt Smith, and his tag line “Bow ties are cool.”

Note: Bow ties are not cool. Think less Doctor Who and more Les Nessman of WKRP in Cincinnati.

Most of the time, however, ties are just useless pieces of fabric. And for those who lament their demise, I ask, would that bookseller’s service been any better if he wore a tie? More to the point, the only people I regularly see wearing a tie are congressmen, and they’re only slightly less popular than cockroaches in their approval rating.

I guess I shouldn’t complain (though I’ve spent about 1000 word doing just that). As a guy, I’m lucky. I only have one piece of useless attire. Women have entire closets full.

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Don’t Ban Bossy – Ban Bitchy

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There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Facebook Chief Operating Officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg’s latest initiative to “Ban Bossy”, and in doing so encourage girls to attain positions of authority. According to banbossy.com, “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ “.

Let’s set aside the fact that the people who run this Web site don’t know how to properly use quotation marks. As the father of three daughters, I am all for anything that encourages girls to be more empowered. I also agree that we shouldn’t be using the word bossy to describe girls who are outspoken about their ideas and opinions. However, less effort should be put into banning the word bossy, and more effort should be put into teaching our girls (and boys, for that matter) not to be bossy.

Right now, you might be saying, “Hey, you’re a guy. You spend your days in the back room with all the other guys, smoking cigars and plotting to keep women down. What do you know about the problems girls have in being more assertive?”

A woman I once worked with was both smart and attractive. She had an advanced degree in her field, and had proven her abilities time and again. But she worked in a primarily male dominated field. It was a constant struggle to get these men, most of whom probably had more porn than spreadsheets on their laptops, to see past her good looks to the capable leader she was.

Another woman who managed at a company I worked for was the epitome of bossy. She talked down to people, always knew better, tended to dictate rules like she was Moses atop Mount Sinai. When a coworker found out she was going to be her new supervisor, his response was, “She’s mean”.

I’ve spent most of my career in workplaces that were a majority of women. I’ve coached them and counseled them. I’ve experienced the difference in dynamics between a primarily female workplace and a primarily male workplace. In fact, I would argue that being a man gives me an outsider’s perspective on the issue. And what I’ve come to realize is that what the workplace needs is fewer bosses and more leaders.

Being a leader is not the same as being a boss. It is not the same as being a manager. As Tom Peters said, “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” Or in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “The leader leads, the boss drives.”

Bossiness (or to use a term more in line with the Ban Bossy folks, assertiveness) is not a leadership quality. It is a management quality. A leader doesn’t tell everyone what to do, instead, a leader gets everyone moving in the same direction towards a mutually desired result. Martin Luther King put it best when he said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

So why are so many so-called leaders bossy? In one word – insecurity. They are unsure of their abilities. They fear failure. They are afraid of appearing vulnerable. They think that any day now, they’ll be found out as the imposters they believe they are. As a result, they bark orders instead of asking questions. They talk instead of listen. They cover up their mistakes by placing the blame on their subordinates. They see opposing views as a threat to the authority.

Not that there isn’t a place for being assertive. The problem with some leaders is that they spend too much time building consensus. Hearing everyone’s opinion takes time. Often, there is no one right answer, and too much information can bog down the process. It takes a true leader to know when it’s time to make a decision. In some cases, there just isn’t time to get everyone together for a discussion, collect data and develop a 100 page report. If our building was on fire, I wouldn’t call a meeting, pull out flip charts and brain storm ideas to handle the situation. I’d quickly evaluate the situation as best I could and make the decisions necessary to ensure everyone’s safety, and if that meant I had to drag some hysterical employee out by his scruff, so be it.

So there’s nothing wrong with being bossy when the situation calls for bossiness. A good leader knows this. If it isn’t called for, yes it’s negative. But we shouldn’t call it being bossy, we should call it what it is – being bitchy.

The Ban Bossy folks also shouldn’t think this is as just a women’s issue. Men can be just as bossy.

Only we call it being an asshole.

SAT – Stupid Aptitude Test

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It’s no secret that I’m no fan of employment testing (see my post, Testing, Testing, 1,2,3), so when I heard a news item on NPR’s on my drive home about how employers are asking for SAT scores as part of the hiring process, I nearly slammed into a tree. What idiot believes that how you did on a college entrance exam four or more years ago has anything to do with how good an employee you will be?

I’m guessing they are the same people who did well on their SATs.

Like many high school students today, I took the SAT. I strolled into a classroom at a neighboring high school early one Saturday morning (way to early, if you ask me. If you are going to test high school students, it should be done after they usually wake up, maybe two or three in the afternoon), and with my sharpened number 2 pencils, spent three hours answering a series of mind-numbing questions. In those dark ages, before modern-day inventions like the smart phone and the light bulb, I don’t recall anyone studying for months beforehand or paying thousands of dollars to take a prep course, or even losing any sleep over the SAT. It was just another test in a series of tests just like it we had been taking since the first grade.

I did pretty well, too, if I recall. But if you want to know my score as a part of your employment application, you’re out of luck. I don’t remember it. And I wouldn’t want to work for you, anyway.

Companies such a CVent, Goldman Sachs and Boston Consulting Group all request SATs, and not just for entry-level applicants. Some ask it of middle-aged, seasoned candidates. Some organizations even have set minimum scores, but even for those who use it as one factor in the decision-making process, the question is, why use it at all?

The SAT is not designed to determine whether or not you will perform well in the workplace. At first, it wasn’t even used as a part of your college entrance application. Instead, it was used as coaching tool once you started.
It is designed to determine how well you will do in your first year of college. Nothing more, nothing less. A recent study showed that it doesn’t even do that well. And the same reasons it doesn’t work for college admissions is the same reasons it doesn’t work for employers:

1) It is primarily an indicator of how well someone takes a standardized test. It doesn’t tell you whether someone will be reliable, honest, hard-working, a team player – all those things that most employers value.

2) It is arguably slewed toward students from wealthy families, since they have the means to pay thousands of dollars for test prep courses to help improve their scores.

3) It is possible to cheat. Google Cheating and SAT and some people will even tell you how to do it.

So, if you are hiring someone based on a high SAT, there is a good chance they are either 1) good at taking tests 2) rich or 3) cheaters. Yeah, just the kind of diversity we want in our workforce.

Those who have studied what it takes to succeed in college have found that a high school GPA is a much better predictor of college success than any standardized test. This makes sense, since the ability to get good grades means having smarts, discipline and time management skills, all of which come in handy in academia. These same principle applies to the workplace. The best predictor of future performance is past performance.

Some of the companies who use the SAT will argue that they need some way to measure entry-level employees who have no work experience. My answer to them is that if a candidate never worked part-time in a grocery store, held an internship, volunteered at an animal shelter, or had some sort of employment, paid or not, pass on them. They work out, but you don’t want to be the one to have to break them in.

In the Wall Street Journal article, CVent’s Eric Eden stated, “Knowing it’s a standardized test is enough for us.” He’s their VP of Marketing, so I supposed that makes him an expert on identifying high performers. I’m sure he wouldn’t offer a new product or service without a lot of research behind it, so why does his company take the SAT at face value? At least Google knows better. The same article stated that their research showed no evidence of a correlation between high performing employees and the SAT.

The only thing an SAT tells you about a person is their SAT score. Useless at work, unless, of course, your job is to sit at a desk and fill in hundreds of little circles without going outside the lines.