Dressing for Success and Career Goals

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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