An excerpt from “Millennials in the Workplace: Human Resource Strategies for a New Generation” by Neil Howe.
By Neil Howe
It’s no secret that older generations often criticize their young Millennial coworkers for how they dress in the workplace. Managers complain about young employees who clomp down office hallways in flip-flops, glue iPods to their ears, and sport inappropriate tattoos and piercings. Such behaviors, they claim, show a lack of respect for authority and for office norms.
Not true. What such behaviors actually show is not a lack of respect, but rather a lack of knowledge. Today’s youth on the job typically dress inappropriately because their Boomer parents never taught them about corporate norms—and employers, for all their complaints, are rarely specific about what they require.
Unlike their parents when young, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2004) appreciates the importance of politeness norms and sincerely wishes that they could better learn what these are. The problem is that today’s youth don’t understand what phrases such as “formal appearance” really mean.
Millennials who dress casually in the workplace believe they are following the norms of their elders, not flouting them. After all, Millennials have been seeing older generations dress down for as long as they can remember. Many saw Boomers (born 1943-1960) pioneer the casual dress movement in the 1980s, wearing their famous Levi’s to the office. Nearly all of them saw Generation X (born 1961-1981) take casual to a whole new level in the 1990s, with Silicon-Valley executives running strategy meetings in sandals and t-shirts. Interviews with grungy tech superstars now stream on wsj.com, and images of tattered CEOs monopolize the covers of Wired and Fortune.
In fact, the social rules governing proper dress and behavior have today become very complicated—with a lot more edginess allowable in some settings than in others. (Is your office in San Francisco or Columbus? Is your industry media or banking? Are you meeting with creatives or with stockholders?) Boomers and Gen Xers may assume that Millennials understand these rules, but often they do not. Most Millennials simply do what older generations did when young: They look at older images of success and say, OK, that must be the norm.
Boomers and Gen Xers also assume that every youth generation pushes the envelope on dress, as they once did. But most Millennials aren’t pushing, and many are self-consciously adjusting Xer-pioneered fashion trends to fit their own more-mainstream style. Clothing colors have shifted from black to bright. Prep, once out, is now in. The signature urban look is less about open-collared attitude and more about buttoned-down success. Compared to Xers at the same age, a slightly larger share of Millennials are getting tattoos—but the new Millennial trend is to opt for smaller tattoos and to hide them beneath clothing, with 70 percent saying their tattoos are not usually visible.
Even before they entered the workplace, Millennials are easily adjusting their personal style to fit institutional norms. Starting in the 1990s, large numbers of public K-12 schools began instituting formal dress codes—or even school uniforms—in an effort to improve behavior and achievement. Few Millennials ever objected. Most came to expect dress codes or uniforms as a standard feature of any well-ordered institutional environment.
Today, this uniformed generation actually expresses more support than older generations for conventional workplace attire. According to a recent JWT survey, 67 percent of Millennial respondents agreed that “a formal appearance at the workplace is important for career success,” compared to 54 percent of 40-somethings and 56 percent of 50-plus respondents. Millennials are even willing to train in advance on how to dress for success in the workplace. The College of Business at Illinois State University recently implemented a dress code for classes, to no complaints from the student body. Some employers are also recognizing Millennials’ desire for early training: Merrill Lynch brought Prada stylists to a women’s dress-for-success night at the University of Pennsylvania (tips: Avoid bright red nail polish and wear closed-toed shoes.).
Boomer and Gen-X managers, pay attention:
If you believe that the dress and behavior of young workers is sometimes inappropriate, treat it as a knowledge and training issue, not an attitude issue.
Announce to everyone exactly what the problem is and why. Draft a specific code on dress or a specific do-and-don’t list on behavior.
Set up workshops (with a mastery “star” or “certificate”) if concrete instruction is required. As educators have already discovered, this generation responds well to hands-on, interactive learning in a formal setting, especially if they’re given “credit.”
Be fair and use common sense in tracking compliance, and make sure that you and other older workers are meeting the same standard.
The improved conduct will soon become second nature, and it is unlikely you will encounter any significant pushback from Millennials along the way. Some may even thank you.
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