Dress to impress

Stefan Stern
12 May 2014

15 May 2014 | Stefan Stern

How’s your latin? Cucullus 
non facit monachum. It’s a fine old phrase that means “the hood does not make the monk” – in other words, what people wear is less important than what they do. We shouldn’t always judge people by their appearance.

However, in the workplace how we look does matter. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. Professionalism demands that when we turn up for a shift or a day’s work we are dressed, in that over-used word, “appropriately”. Nurses in scruffy t-shirts or airline cabin crew in mini skirts do not pass that test.

But we are not just talking about appearances. Clothing (and equipment) are what the HR experts might categorise as a “hygiene factor” – nothing to do with literal cleanliness, but an apparently trivial matter which means a lot.

Are there enough pens in the store cupboard? Do mugs and plates get washed up? Is the lighting ok? Give staff cheap uniforms or badly maintained equipment – IT, anyone? – and you are asking for trouble. What purchasers do to keep staff happy in this regard is important. It’s an example of where false economies can cause difficulty, and the unseen hand of procurement can make a big difference.

Some flexibility is called for. As far as IT is concerned, “bring your own device” (BYOD) regimes treat employees as grown-ups and make sense. Uniformity is not always good, even if uniforms 
are sometimes needed. But if anyone asks me to wear a mini skirt I’m out of here.

If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours

Reciprocity. Another fine Latinate term for something terribly important. In plain terms – if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours (again, no need to take me literally on this point).

Some people approach business, and life generally, as a “win-lose” battle. They love competition, and are often very good at it. They are great individualists. Winning makes them feel good. Losing is appalling, unthinkable even.

Other people are more collaborative. They like being in successful teams. They enjoy it when their colleagues do well. And when they ask people to “go the extra mile” they are likely to get a positive response, in part because they have probably done other people some favours in the past.

You can see where I’m going. Buyers sometimes look for that little bit extra. They tell a supplier that it is time to “go the extra mile” if they want relationships – and contracts – to be maintained.

But sometimes this might feel like “something for nothing”. And in a recovering economy, with more business to be done, it is probably not a great time to be rubbing some suppliers’ noses in it.

Before you ask a supplier to go the extra mile, ask yourself – what’s in it for them, other than keeping the business in the short term? If the answer is “nothing”, then it is probably time to think again.

☛ Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School

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