Sunday, July 30, 2006

Corporate Casual

If ever there was an oxymoron, the description “corporate casual” applies. As most of you know, this phrase is used to describe an office practice of employees being allowed, sometimes permanently but often just for summer Fridays, to dress in a more “casual” manner, i.e., in the case of men, not wear suits and ties. It implies a looseness, an acceptance of humanity in both management and employees. It’s a gift to the workers from the bosses: here, please accept this warm gesture, we want you to be happier and more comfortable in our work place.

So why is that “corporate casual” simply means men in an office adopting a new and just as strictly enforced uniform that has all the leisure comfort of a cow having a 100-volt cattle prod being shoved up its ass in a slaughterhouse?

That new uniform consists of three things: a knit shirt, khaki pants and Bass weejuns. I’ve worked in many offices. How many times have I seen this? As many times as I’ve seen men in suits and ties. And just as often, the men adopting this new uniform wouldn’t know how to be casual if their lives depended on it. These are not casual people. Their lives are financial tightrope acts, making enormous sums of money to support a lifestyle that burns through money like a blazing furnace. They’re often not fun people. They don’t know how to relax. When they do relax, they become obsessed with work and break out their Blackberries.

Their lives are work, which they’ll probably come to realize when they put their spouses in the ground many years from now and feel a strange emptiness that they’ll mistake for true mourning. Nah. It will be confusion that they’ll be able to recall feeling much worse over lost battles in business than for people who have played secondary roles to money. In younger days, I would have frowned on this, but now I see that people simply make their choices in life. I’d appreciate it if people were more honest about what really mattered to them instead of playing these asinine emotional games that falsely ensure they “win” everything. Nobody wins everything, that much I have learned.

But getting back to clothes, I recently had an odd jolt, courtesy of your stock Human Resources impresario at a small company in midtown. (And let’s not get into what I think of Human Resources in general!) As with any job, my first day there I came in wearing a white shirt and tie. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m entirely comfortable with the look. It took years to get here. Like most people, I associate ties with assholes, with pencil necks, with the kind of people who’ve never done real work. But it’s just another uniform, and what’s funny to me is that you’ll get a bunch of construction workers having their 11:00 am lunches, all splayed out over the sidewalk with their coolers and roast beef sandwiches, nothing but jeans, dirty t-shirts and work boots … and I’d bet at least one-third of those guys are making just as much or more money than the guys with ties they’re condescendingly smirking at. It’s been my experience that everyone gets a healthy dose of shit to eat at work, whatever uniform they’re wearing. It’s a bad mind-fuck for working-class guys to think office-working guys in ties have an easier life. They don’t. Chances are, you put these guys in an office, the mental stress and head games of dealing with money-hungry weirdoes would blow their minds and have them quitting inside of a month.

I usually make note of what other guys are wearing when I come into an office. And this place was a mix of business casual types, and guys in white shirts and ties. So, I figured, just wear a white shirt and tie unless otherwise instructed. Not a big deal. Late that afternoon of the first day, the woman I’m helping out on this project comes by and says, “You know, we’re business casual here. There’s no need for you to wear a tie if you don’t want to.” So I immediately ask her, “Would wearing a clean black or navy blue pocket t-shirt be all right?”

I made that request specific because that’s what I own, and I can often get away with wearing them in a “corporate casual” environment. Ultimately, I don’t like wearing shirts with collars, although I’ve learned to tolerate them. If you get right down to it, I don’t like wearing shirts with sleeves! In summer, I spend months wearing sleeveless white t-shirts – when it gets this hot, I don’t see the point in wearing anything else. Think I’m monochromatic and dull? That’s fine. I don’t give a shit. I’m not “showing off my guns.” I box much more than I lift weights, and my “guns” aren’t that big a deal. I just like being as cool as possible, temperature – not image – wise.

“Sure, you can wear that!” she said.

And so I did the next day. Everything seemed fine. I went out to lunch. When I came back, this woman had left a note on my desk asking me to come see her. I don’t like seeing notes like that – they’re usually bad news of some sort. I went by her office, and she had a sheepish look on her face. She started off by saying she had just had a conversation with the Human Resources manager.

And at this point I’m thinking, “What could I have possibly done in a day and a half with virtually no contact with anyone in this place to merit the attention of the highly-esteemed HR manager?”

And she carried on, “I’m sorry, but I was wrong about t-shirts. He told me that you need to wear a collared shirt.”

“Look, I’ll wear a tux if you people want, it doesn’t matter to me. I guess we both know the rules now!” I answered.

We laughed it off. As well we should have. The clothes we wear in an office are basically a non-issue to me. I have no problems wearing a white shirt and tie every day. But understand that the woman laughing with me was wearing a light blue blouse, with straps, bare shoulders, and what appeared to be light red, some type of satin shorts and flip flops.

Which brings me to the core problem: “corporate casual” is a deeply sexist policy. Women can wear just about anything they want in these kind of environments, whereas men have to go the usual stodgy, not-really-casual (knit shirt, khakis, weejuns) route. If I had mimicked that woman’s dress style, I’d be wearing a tank-top, a pair of shorts and sandals. Please understand that I have never seen a guy dressed like this in any office – maybe if I had worked for the Grateful Dead’s record company, I might have seen this. (I might have even seen guys wearing sandals with black socks.) But otherwise, it’s either suits and ties, or this cruddy knit-shirt look that I will never endorse. Meanwhile, you have woman with bare shoulders, wearing shorts, wearing summer dresses that show off about half of their thighs, fuck-me heels, t-shirts – you name it, short of hot pants and crotchless panties, they’re wearing this stuff.

What is this shit? Why are women allowed to truly dress in a casual fashion, whereas guys have a strictly delineated style they must adhere to, all in the name of “corporate casual”? Please understand I know this is not a life-and-death issue. It’s just one of those creepy, totally senseless, completely insane things I notice about office life that make me extremely suspect of office work in general, and not willing to commit to it in any real way. You know, it gets much worse than this in terms of that distancing – usually in the ways I see companies genuinely mess with people’s lives, firing them at a moment’s notice for no good reason, trying to lance them from their positions via wars of attrition, hiring people who are basically evil and just no fucking good by anyone’s standards, engaging in meaningless, harassing bullshit with workers that have nothing to do with them simply doing their jobs well, demanding so much from employees in terms of time that their personal lives become a sad, secondary joke, etc.

It gets much worse than these nonsensical dress-code issues. But, again, it’s just one of those things where I shake my head and think, why not just have everyone wear a jump suit? We did that in my dad’s factory, when I worked there in my summers during college. Whatever department you worked in, you got a certain-colored jump suit. I got a white jump suit, and I thought it was cool as hell. I remember Pete Townshend wearing this sort of thing on stage. It was the kind of thing DEVO would wear. It made sense. You had no option of “expressing yourself” via clothing. You simply got into the locker room every morning, took off your real clothes and slipped into that jump suit. It felt great. Everyone looked just like you did.

I strongly advocate the same for offices. And not just because a jump suit would be a thousand times cheaper than a suit! But because it would take away these nonsensical rules about “casualness,” which, again, has no place in an office. It would encourage workers to work as a unit – we all look the same, we’re doing the same jobs, we’re one. From what I’ve seen in offices, that vibe is sorely lacking. You get people talking that team-work horseshit, but usually that ruse comes from a corner office. Most people are out for themselves and use concepts like “team work” only in whatever sense it will further their personal fortunes. The only people I see engaged in real team work are the ones who would never consider some corny pep talk about “team work” itself. I honestly believe you put everyone in a jump suit, maybe even get rid of offices, put everyone in a cube, use the corner offices for meetings rooms, you’ll get much more team work out of people.

Of course, I know this will never happen! Offices exist so that people can exercise and demonstrate their status. It’s a totally insane system, I know this, but work to keep a business functioning must get done. This is the ultimate goal you have to concern yourself with, not all the extraneous nonsense that has absolutely nothing to do with people doing the work they are assigned to do to keep a business functioning. Actually, the ultimate goal is to get paid – but you have to work to get paid, and that’s why you’re here. I love to work – I’m one of the best pure workers you’re ever going to come across. I sense the value that comes with keeping yourself occupied and accomplishing whatever goal is placed in front of you. I just got no fucking use for all this other nonsense.

Going back to the factory and the jump suit, I have to say that the only jobs I’ve had where I had a sense of true work-place camaraderie were in working-class jobs, of which I only had a few before, during and after college. Once I came to New York, it was all offices after that. But back home in Pennsylvania, in those factories, I had a sense that my coworkers weren’t out to fuck each other over, weren’t money hungry, and most importantly, were sincere. You couldn’t get away with the sort of insincerity I regularly see in office places – it just doesn’t wash with working-class people (save for the management in any given factory). There were other problems. A lot of my coworkers were dumb as nails, prone to burning all their sick days and often deeply unhappy with life. But, surprise, it’s no different in the corporate world in that sense!

What does all this have to do with a pocket t-shirt? Call it a symbol of my discomfort with the corporate world, why I choose to stick with temp and freelance gigs, unless I find tolerable work places. (And the last place that happened was an investment bank, believe it or not, where I simply had myself in a good work environment and stayed with it for about four years. The place also had free lunch and beverages, which I sorely miss!) That pocket t-shirt is symbolic of a purity of life I respect. It’s just who I am in some sense. I fully expect and accept having it rejected in an office environment. But in some respect I also tie that t-shirt in with youth. And when you’re young, when you first encounter this kind of insanity, you tell yourself, “I’m never going to be that crazy. These people are nuts. Can’t they see that?"

Now that I’m older, my answer is, no, they can’t see that. And however young and wise you think you are, chances are somewhere along the line you will drink the Kool Aid and, at the very least, play along with those things you understand to be totally insane. And this is assuming you don’t take it a step further and actually start accepting it as gospel. My mantra: all I have to do is stay sane and healthy, and financially support my chosen way of life. The rest is bullshit. Sounds easy enough? Most people I know only get two out of three right in that equation. Guess which one they're missing!


Jordan Hoffman said...

Question: what the hell are weejuns?

I guess I am lucky because I still have yet to have a job where I've been forced to wear a tie. I guess I never outgrew the discomofort. Tucking a shirt in is anathema to me (it may be because it makes me look not just like a fat guy but a fucking huge monsterous fat guy.) I really only wear ties at weddings and funerals. I have one pair of pants, one nice button down light blue shirt, one pair of dress shoes and one jacket. And the jacket has a yarmulke in the pocket (which I only wear at SOME of the weddings and funerals I go to.)

If I was offered a big money position, I'd reconsider, but so far it is one of the few points of pride I cling to.

William S. Repsher said...

Weejuns = docksiders, moccasins. Basically, "corporate casual" is like walking into a country-club bar in any affluent suburb.

I'm always reminded of that time in high school and college, when we'd look at people in ties and think, they're nuts, no way could I do that. Just look at them! My generation will change all that! We'll let people be themselves! We'll let them be normal!

Well, no. Life doesn't work that way. If the hippies couldn't make that happen, you better belive the generations afterwards won't. Again, you get used to it, even if you get tired of all the senselss crap that goes along with wearing the uniform.