Dress appropriately

The dress code at GM and why I wear blue t-shirts. (Plus 7 other things worth reading this morning.)

Hi. I’m Bill Murphy Jr. Welcome to Understandably, my new regularly published email about “the story behind other stories.”

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My dad gave me some good advice when I graduated from college and started working: 

Simplify your wardrobe at work. Find a few things you like and wear them every day. Eliminate that choice from your morning, so you can focus on what matters most.

I was only 21, so I promptly ignored everything he said. In fact, I probably did the opposite, as a form of rebellion.

Also, I went to a Catholic high school where we had HORRIBLE uniforms. I didn’t want a de facto uniform in the working world.

It worked as well as you’d expect. There are some photos of me back then that make me cringe now.

Years later the idea of wearing the same boring thing over and over became a badge of honor.

Think of the late Steve Jobs in his black mock turtleneck, or Richard Branson in his white shirts and jeans. Now, I do in fact wear almost the same thing most days—at least when I don’t have to dress up a bit to go into NYC:

  • Jeans and blue t-shirts in the fall and winter.

  • Tan shorts and blue t-shirts in the summer.

I’m thinking of all of this because someone mentioned an article I wrote for Inc. last year, about how Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, radically simplified the dress code at GM. (This was when she previously was the had of GM’s human resources.)

As the story goes, GM had a 9-page dress code, and she cut it down to two words:

“Dress appropriately.”

People LOVE that story. It’s about slashing bureaucracy and telling the admin weenies where to stuff it. Who needs nine pages? We’re Americans! We only need two words!

Since then, other companies have done something similar.

At American Airlines, the passenger dress code simply reads: "Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren't allowed."

At Goldman Sachs, it’s all summarized in a dozen words: "[P]lease dress in a manner that is consistent with your clients' expectations."

The only thing is: Simple language doesn’t always lead to simple results.

Barra talks about a manager who came to her after her two-word edict, upset that his team was now wearing jeans every day.

She refused to get involved, she said, and ultimately, the manager reached his own solution — allowing his team to wear jeans, but also asking them to keep a change of clothes at work in case they had to meet clients.

"The big 'a-ha,' Barra later said, “was that you need to make sure your managers are empowered, because if they can't handle 'dress appropriately,' what other judgment decisions are they not making?"

Let’s tie all this together. The reason you have a dress code, or even casual guidance about dress, or even a self-directed habit, isn’t necessarily to inhibit or encourage individuality.

Instead, it’s to stop wasting creative resources — mindshare and bandwidth, as much as I hate those words — on things that ultimately don’t matter.

It’s much better to be able to cross “what am I wearing today” off a list quickly, and focus that brainpower on other things that matter more.

That’s why I’m wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt today. Same as yesterday, probably same as tomorrow.

Here are 7 other things worth checking out today:

  1. Here’s the full internal email that the new chairman of WeWork sent to employees, hoping to rally the troops while also warning of a lack of focus and layoffs. (CNBC)

  2. Honda says that by 2023, it expects to sell only electric and hybrid cars in Europe. (CNN Business)

  3. The U.S. government says drivers are killing pedestrians at the highest rate in 30 years. (The Verge)

  4. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just got a $1 million prize for “achievements in strengthening the rule of law and advancing equality between the sexes.” (The Wall Street Journal)

  5. Resting smirk face: The BBC apologized after a newscaster apparently mistook a politician’s normal resting expression for a sarcastic smirk. (BBC)

  6. A new study says frequent naps might reduce your odds of having a heart attack or stroke. (BMJ)

  7. I wrote about the CEO of Under Armour stepping down. The CEO of Nike picked the same day to make the same announcement. It might not be a coincidence. (Quartz)