Updated on 12.03.11

Dressing for Success and Career Goals

Trent Hamm

I got a great email recently from Marjorie:

My husband’s father just gave him a huge speech about how he doesn’t dress appropriately for work and how he will never get promoted or “become a manager” dressing the way he does. My husband is a computer programmer who works with a bunch of engineers. He wears dress slacks and polos or button-up shirts everyday to work, while most of his co-workers wear jeans and t-shirts. This confused me, but my husband exaplined to me that what his father is saying that since he doesn’t wear designer clothes and because he doesn’t wear a tie everyday that he will never be promoted. We buy his clothes at JC Penney, but the cheaper brands. I can’t tell the difference between them and the nicer dept. store brands, other than the price. Do you agree with my father-in-laws assessment? What about if my husband wants to advance his career, but has no interest in managing people? I realize he would make more money if he eventually became a manager, but he enjoys his computer programming work, and probably wouldn’t enjoy managing people, and I would never want him to work a job he didn’t enjoy if he didn’t have to.

I think what’s happening here is that your father-in-law is substituting his own goals for his son’s goals and he’s trying to guide his son towards those goals.

Your husband seems to have his own set of career goals. He’d like to advance his career as a programmer, but he has no interest in being in management. Your husband also has familiarity with the culture of the career path that he’s chosen.

I think it’s absolutely vital that people have a set of career goals. They need to have a sense of where they want to go and what they need to do to get there. For those reading this, ask yourself those questions. Where do you want to be with your career in five years? In ten years? In twenty? What do you need to be doing to get there?

Yes, attire can be a part of those goals. The usual advice is to dress in the attire of the position you want to eventually attain. If you want to be in management, dress like management. If you want to be just part of the senior staff, dress like part of the senior staff. I consider that to be pretty good advice.

It sounds like your husband is dressing for the position he wants to attain eventually, which is a senior programmer. He should note what people in his desired position wear and emulate it.

Your father-in-law has his own goals and he probably envisions certain outcomes for his son, for various reasons. For those goals and outcomes, the advice your father-in-law is giving his son is probably good advice. He likely envisions his son eventually moving into management and wants to prepare him to do so.

The challenge here, as it often is, is communication. For this type of disagreement to occur, both people aren’t articulating what their goals are and the paths they see toward those goals.

Your husband can fulfill his part by simply making it clear that his goals do not involve moving into management. He needs to make it clear that he’s dressing for the role he aspires to, and that something he values deeply is a job that he enjoys doing and he’s willing to accept non-executive pay for that position.

If your husband can’t clearly articulate his career goals and his plans for achieving them, he should spend some time thinking about his plan for the future. Can he clearly state where he wants to be in five or ten years? What exactly is he going to do to make sure that happens? The more thought he’s given to this and the more detail he can give, the better.

Your father-in-law should be able to accept that. If he’s not, then your next move is to simply disregard his advice with regards to a career path. If he’s still giving advice that seems to be guiding your husband toward a management role, your husband needs to just nod his head and then follow his own path.

I actually sympathize with your husband. I have little interest or desire to be involved with personnel management, and knowing that about myself has driven many of my choices, both in the past and even today. I don’t want to manage people and it sounds like your husband doesn’t either.

However, it’s important to remember that (likely) your father-in-law cares deeply and desires a successful life without want for his son. Keep that in mind as you address this situation and handle everything with care and without anger or aggression.

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  1. Rita says:

    It could be your father in law is describing what he thinks is true because it has been that way for his generation. He is sincerely trying to be helpful. My daughter is the business manager in a library. Has the degree to be but isn’t interested in being the director of the library. She dresses very well and nearly everything she buys is bought on sale. She just looks professional and friendly. Constantly, she must give back to the boss what is his to do. She has the answer and was told several times the director position was hers if she wanted it. She even spent $10,000 on more schooling. Realized the job was not for her when the pay offered was $20,000 less than male director or the previous lady director received. I think many times they want us to believe we can move up but in reality it isn’t true. She is ok with the work she does now. And if she left the library she would choose a totally different line of work.

  2. matt says:

    if your company won’t promote you because of the clothes you wear, it’s time to find a new company to work for.

  3. Maggie says:

    I agree very heartily with the conclusions in the original post, and my personal experience matches what Rita is saying.

    The only point still unaddressed, in what came forward for me, is the writer saying they “can’t tell the difference between the cheaper JCPenney brands and the nicer department store brands”. Unfortunately, the people who make hiring decisions at the top CAN tell the difference, and some of them use that difference (consciously or not) to help them make hiring decisions.

    If at any point the programmer does want to move into management, or if he wants to be hired at an unfamiliar organization, it might be useful for them to learn to recognize the subtle differences in fabric, cut, and detailing that the senior management folks will notice.

    (And, full disclosure, this advice could be 25 years out of date, based on my advanced age).

    Thanks so much for the wonderfully clear writing you put out here for us.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    Dad is most likely of the generation where one dressed a certain way for work (for men, dress shirt & tie, if not a suit). These days, that is not the case unless you’re in a very conservative business, certain professionals, being seen on TV, or working high-end retail.

    Programmers typically dress down, as they’re not meeting with the public. It sounds to me Marjorie’s husband is already dressing one level above his cohorts, so I’d just thank dad for the comments and do what makes your husband most comfortable. And, Maggie, I disagree that managers consider the brand you wear, unless, again, you’re in high end retail or other rarified environments.

  5. Amy says:

    Nice post. In addition to different goals, this is also a different industry — computer programming is somewhat unique, and it’s fairly standard relaxed dress code may have something to do with 1) the personalities that founded the industry, and 2) the fact that most of the big companies originally based in California, where it’s always been a bit more casual. The father’s advice probably applies very much to banking and financial industries, but not necessarily to the computer industry.

  6. krantcents says:

    The rule of thumb that I use is to dress and act as if you had the position you want. In computer programming, there are various levels of contributors that do not have management responsibility.

  7. jim says:

    It depends on the workplace.

    Generally for most high tech companies where engineers tend to work, the standard dress of business casual is perfectly fine. IN fact as a fairly accurate generalization I’d say that most engineers have little dress sense and couldn’t tell the difference from a $1000 suit and a $100 suit. Most of us don’t care much at all about clothes. I’ve seen engineers wear sweat pants and t-shirts with cartoon characters.

    In fact wearing a tie may backfire. I work in high tech at one of the fortune 100 companies. Nobody in engineering wears a tie to work… ever. WE used to make fun of a guy who wore a tie to work. Your father in laws advice may be completely wrong. Sales people and executives are a different story, they do tend to dress fancier. But even the CEO of our company doesn’t wear ties every day. (I googled his name and foudn 3 pictures without a tie)

    But it depends on the company.. if your husband works for a bank or financial company for example then the standard for work dress may be much higher. I’ve known high tech companies (very few) where people do wear ties and suits. I’ve heard IBM is fancier in the dress too but I’m not sure on that.

    It depends…

    What does your husbands boss wear? That should be fairly obvious demonstration of what attire is required to be a manager.

    Now of course if your husband doesn’t want a fancy promotion then he shouldn’t care in any case. BUT he’s getting pressure from his father in law so has to respond to that somehow. If he works in a workplace where dress is casual (high tech) then his dad is wrong. It ain’t 1960 anymore.

  8. jim says:

    BTW.. my friend is an engineer who just got promoted to management and he never wears anything better than t-shirts and jeans to work as far as I’ve seen.

  9. Johanna says:

    I also work in an office where casual clothing (e.g. polos and khakis) is the norm. Some people dress a little nicer than that, others a little more casually, based on what makes them feel the most comfortable. That holds for senior people and junior people alike – there’s not really a rule that “management” dresses any nicer than “non-management.” If we were to follow the “dress for the job you want” guideline, we’d each be wearing what makes somebody else most comfortable. What would be the point of that?

  10. Gretchen says:

    This isn’t about the clothes.

    Does the husband want to move up in the company or not (I can’t really tell.) If not, that’s a convo between the husband and his dad and the letter writer should stay out of it.

  11. Vanessa says:

    @ Gretchen

    I was thinking this was an issue between the wife and the husband and the dad should stay out of it.

  12. Johanna says:

    “Does the husband want to move up in the company or not (I can’t really tell.) If not, that’s a convo between the husband and his dad and the letter writer should stay out of it.”

    Wait, what? Why are a grown man’s career ambitions (or lack thereof) his father’s business but not his wife’s?

    It seems to me like the father is being a concern troll, and should be handled like any other concern troll: Thank him for his advice, then ignore it.

  13. Gretchen says:

    I was trying to tie it to the letter?
    I don’t know.

    It’s certainly not a wife/father in law conversation either way.

  14. Meg says:

    I definitely agree that the dad’s advise is coming from a place that is likely well intentioned but also most appropriate for a) any job 20 years ago and b) only more professional fields where you are in front of clients and/or in management today (finance, sales, law).

    Still, I have to say that I relate most to the FIL in this one. I know a lot of engineers and tech guys and they always seem sloppy and fashion-impaired to me – even on dates and at church and at cocktail parties. Now that it’s ok to wear sneakers to work in some industries, there is a whole demographic of men who don’t even own anything suitable even for a funeral or steakhouse or job interview.

    And BTW there can be a whole world of difference between cheap khakis and a “polo” and a fashionable pair of well-fitted slacks and a tailored shirt with appropriate belt, shoes, etc.

  15. Kate says:

    I got as far as “husband’s father just gave him a huge speech about how he doesn’t” and stopped reading. I have grown children and I simply cannot understand why parents think that they should continue lecturing their adult children. You can finish the sentence any way that you like–the “advice” quite likely was out of line and the father-in-law quite likely has not realized that things change in the world, the workplace, and should change in his relationship with his adult son.
    P.S. Somehow I think this post of Trent’s hit a nerve! :)

  16. lurker carl says:

    No information as to what prompted the huge father to son speech. Sounds like there is much more to this story than is being relayed by Marjorie.

  17. getagrip says:

    My mother once asked me why I never took her advice. I told her she didn’t give me advice, she gave orders. Often those orders were from an era out of touch with the reality of my life, though I tried to sift the relavent intent and meaning from them, and she was constantly exasperated that I didn’t “do as I was told”.

    Too many well meaning individuals figure that what worked for them must absolutely work for you, if only you would do exactly what they did. The father’s point is right in essence as Trent better points out in the article. But the father is potentially off the mark in details. I would recommend that husband simply reply to his father that he is dressing for the promotion, and remind the father that if he out dresses his own boss he’ll potentially harm his chances to be advanced.

  18. Priswell says:

    I think mostly the father mentioned here is confused. The way things were done in his time are different now, especially in the geek sector. There is much less emphasis on what we wear than what we can do, unless we deal directly with the public for some reason. Also, I think that the way the son dresses is probably “high end” for most programmers.

    >>I told her she didn’t give me advice, she gave orders. . .though I tried to sift the relevant intent and meaning from them, and she was constantly exasperated that I didn’t “do as I was told”.<<

    Yup. Sounds familiar. I don't know if the father in the original question expects immediate compliance, but it hit one of *my* nerves – LOL!

  19. aryn says:

    I’ll second @Jim and say that overdressing for your company’s culture can backfire on you. I’m also in the tech field, but client-facing. We wear what I call “trendy casual.” There was someone who wasn’t getting where he wanted to be, so he decided to take the advice to “dress for the job you want,” by wearing a tie and dress clothes every day. Everyone thought it was odd, even upper management. When the CEO rarely wears a tie, you shouldn’t wear one either. Eventually he was advised to stop dressing for the job he wanted and start working for the job he wanted. It was much more effective and he earned the respect he wanted.

  20. Des says:

    I think there are a lot of moving parts here. First, there is the issue of whether FIL was “lecturing” vs “passing on wisdom” to his progeny. I think a lot of people are too quick to dismiss the advice as outdated. While the styles may have changed over the years, the basic premise of dressing nicer for work than you would for, say, a ball game still holds true. Even in a casual environment, it is always safer to dress just a bit nicer than your cohorts. (FWIW, I’m 28)

    Then, there is the “I can’t tell the difference between department store quality and designer quality”. Just because you can’t doesn’t mean no one can. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune, but nicer clothes fit better and last longer. We dropped $700 on a new, nicer “grown up” wardrobe for my husband several years ago and haven’t had to replace any of the items since (swapped out his Element and Volcom hoodies for Calvin Klein and Banana Republic slacks and button-downs. At the outlet stores of, course.) Personally, I would rather have 3 nice shirts than 30 ill-fitting cheaper shirts.

    Also, just because you don’t *think* he would want to be in management in the future doesn’t mean he won’t. Plans change. Without going overboard, wouldn’t it be safer to dress on the nicer side of casual?

    IDK…I agree that engineers aren’t required to wear ties, but OTOH people pay good money to get career advice from older, more experienced folk, and you’re getting it for free. I would take what you can out of it, thank him for his candor, and do what you think is best. If you act offended though, and look the gift-horse in the mouth, he may not offer any to you in the future, which would be a shame.

  21. tentaculistic says:

    I agree with many others here – in the computer industry, out-dressing others can backfire big-time. A suit would get him mocked, and likely passed over for promotions. You have to keep a good eye on how people in the position you want dress (showing up the boss makes you look like a huge tool).

    I think if everyone else wears jeans and t-shirt, this lady’s husband is already doing the perfect thing. Slacks and polo still says “casual” but also “I take pride in my attention to details, so you can trust me with your work”.

    Note: I wear a suit most days, ramping up and down the formality based on the client and venue. And when I first started, I dressed closer to my managers than my peers, and it totally worked. So the dad is not out of touch, he’s just talking about a different work culture.

  22. Annie says:

    I think it’s a shame that people can’t dress the way the way because it can back fire on you. Especially as a female, I feel that if i want to wear a suit to work and dress up, i should feel free to do so. If the CEO doesn’t wear suits, then that is his/her problem and they shouldn’t expect others to dress under them. I think promotions should be based on merit and also dressing well. I don’t really want to answer to someone wearing jeans all the time that doesn’t shave or look neat and clean. I love to dress up and look professional and some days i do casual but refuse to dress down to others becasue of a title. It takes away from you and who you are and how good you feel. I would leave that company and hope my next CEO is dressed well and expects his/her employees to carry on the same way.

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