Free to be you and me? Yes, but there’s a but.

The subject of what to wear and how to behave at work can be a tricky one, especially in our increasingly casual and laissez-fair world. So, I was interested to read that Ernst & Young decided it was a subject that needed to be addressed. The firm of accountants recently hired a consultant to run seminars for more than 400 women on staff about appropriate clothes, make-up, jewellery and colours for the workplace. Not to be outdone, Leeds Metropolitan University has put together an etiquette guide for new members of staff, which points out that, among other things, licking one’s knife at the table is a definite no-no.

The impact that our clothing and actions have on those around us, and indeed ourselves, is something I find fascinating. What I find even more fascinating is that some people think it’s inconsequential; either that it doesn’t really matter or that they should just be allowed to ‘be who they are’, no matter what. It’s a fair point in some ways, we should be allowed to be who we are, but there’s a but. There’s always a but. In this case the but is that first impressions matter.

If you choose to dress or behave in a manner that is completely outside the norm of your given environment – too casual or too formal – then you’re relying on others’ abilities to see through a veneer (sloppy, aloof, indifferent, etc.), in order to finally get to ‘you’ and recognise your value. In an ideal world most people might take the time and make the effort do that. In our world, first impressions count, and although we should (and to our collective credit, sometimes do) make the effort to get past the veneers – be they good, bad or indifferent – we are often too busy or too tired to do so.

Anne Freden, chair of Ernst & Young’s women’s network said of the training, “The firm doesn’t view this as something that’s nice to have, but as an integral part of business strategy. There is a huge number of capable and talented women at Ernst & Young looking to maximise their achievement in the firm and in their career, and looking for the skills and tips and tools to do that.”

Although it may not always be our preference to conform to the ‘norm’ or to the corporate life, it’s to our benefit to make the effort in the first instance rather than relying on others to make a double effort in the end.


3 Responses to “Free to be you and me? Yes, but there’s a but.”

  1. 1 Toni November 23, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Very interesting topic. I agree that it is important how we present ourselves – first impressions are very important and rare is the person that takes the time to get to know someone or who glosses over external appearances to see the person inside.

    What I find interesting in this is that the seminars were ran strictly for women – that seminars for men weren’t included or mentioned. I’ve seen and known a number of men who could have benefited from a seminar about how to dress for the best first impression, with their wrinkled shirts and trousers, mismatched socks and black shoes with brown suit – not to mention poor table manners.

    Good food for thought.

  2. 2 smallbitesmanners November 23, 2008 at 10:32 pm


    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I agree with you regarding E&Y’s decision to offer the course only to their female staff. It was part of a larger women’s initiative within the company but I really think they missed a trick not including the men. You’re observations are spot on!


  3. 3 AFR November 24, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    I find this topic very interesting indeed. You only get one chance to make a first impression as the old saw goes and asking others to see past one’s ‘disguise’ and somehow divine the ‘real’ person underneath whichever ‘top’ layer is on display is not only unrealistic it is thoughtless and maybe even a wee bit rude. At its simplest, why should I have to do the work if the person in front of me isn’t willing to put any effort into thinking about the kind of impression they want to create and presenting themselves accordingly? And you can just bet that sort of person is the one who will be mightily offended when I misread the shorthand conveyed by their dress or manner.

    Lots of food for thought.

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