The curious case of buttoned-up Benjamin

Benjamin works in a consulting company where there was no dress-code unless the client would have a dress-code. Since most consultants were testers and coders (and you know how we dress) the clients understood not to demand a formal dress code.

Then Benjamin’s company changed his boss. The new boss required and insisted on everyone wearing a suit and tie for any work for any client.

Benjamin heard of the news while on an assignment that he had started 3 months ago. He had a good relationship with the client, the work was progressing at a fast clip and the client was happy to have Benjamin there despite him not wearing a suit and tie.

Benjamin had a conundrum. He could continue to wear his pull-over sweater and t-shirt at the client as he had done for 3 months and risk being denounced to the new boss or go for the suit and tie which he hated because it made him sweat. After much consideration he decided that he would wear the suit but not the tie.

The boss called a meeting with Benjamin and in between all of the spitting and shouting said “you either do as I say or you’re back to low level work here at the home office and you will not be in any client project”. The boss felt that Benjamin was personally disrespecting him for not wearing a tie at work.

Benjamin, a veteran of IT projects knew that the best way to handle this situation was to let the boss fall flat on his face and decided to retire from the project and inform the client that, he was no longer allowed to be in the project due to the case of the missing tie.

He left the client’s project and the boss put another consultant in his place. The new consultant made a mess of the project to the point that the consultancy company had to put a second consultant on the project for no extra charge to the client in order to have the project finished without a much larger delay and possible penalties.

This same company still has not fired Benjamin’s boss, in fact they have probably awarded him a bonus for having the decisiveness of instituting a dress code, and Benjamin is still working on back-office projects at HQ instead of doing work at clients.

This is a true story. It is also one of the (many) reasons why I’m glad that I live in a country where people are valued by the work they do and the results they achieve instead of by spurious shows of dictator-like tendencies and the price of their suit and tie.

Benjamin’s boss is a person that does not understand software or software people but he has a position where he can boss them around and that’s what he does!

If you find yourself in a position like that don’t walk away… RUN! Bosses like that should be given only one reward: the pleasure of working alone!

Update: corrected 2 typos.

9 thoughts on “The curious case of buttoned-up Benjamin

  1. In Finland, it is hard to believe the story to be true 🙂 However, our casual attitude towards dressing up may sometimes cause cultural clashes. I just saw some R&D engineer (assumption) meeting guests from Asia. All the guests were wearing suits and ties. This R&D guy had rubber boots and jeans.

    No need to respect the dress-code, but sometimes you really would need to respect your guests. No matter how good you are at what you do.

  2. Extraordinary story. My take on it:

    1. It’s easy to blame the boss, but there’s more going on here

    2. Getting into a fight on the boss’s terms is a classic mistake. The behaviour is about power, by definition he has more power (of a certain sort, at least), so Benjamin is doomed to loose. Never mud-wrestle with a pig…

    3. This is classic “conventional” conflict resolution. To go beyond that…

    4. … ask what the boss’s motivation is. Maybe he thinks that his consultant’s don’t look “professional” enough: so instead of just imposing …

    5. … take this as an opportunity to talk to the client about the standards his consultants are embodying (some clients will see suits as professional, others are more interested on what’s inside – errrr… if you see what I mean). Provides an opening for a deeper relationship with a client and a better fit with their expectations.

    Of course, sometimes you just can’t win, and you’ll find an individual you can’t help move beyond the conventional. But it’s all too easy to pin the blame on “pointy-haired” managers (particularly if it bolsters our identity as “non-management”) without noticing how our behaviour contributes to an impasse like this.

  3. @Toni You are right. One should know when a dress code is needed. Especially if you are selling services/products. However this particular case was not similar to what you describe because Benjamin did dress appropriately according to the client, just not according to the boss

  4. @David Indeed, it’s so easy to blame the boss that I’ll just stick with that for now 🙂

    You are right that this description is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other things that are not clear: How can a suit-obsessed guy get to be a manager of hard-core coders/testers?

    Why would the suit-obsessed boss change the dress-code in the middle of an assignment where the client had not requested it?

    Why would the suit-obsessed boss want to impose a dress-code (separate from that of the clients) in the first place?

    Situations like this are not “simple”, however one thing can be said: culture has a lot to do with this situation, in some cultures this type of situations would be much rarer.

    Do you have direct experience with a similar situation?

  5. Is Benjamin Spanish?
    Does he work for a Spanish consulting company?
    Is his boss Spanish?

    I’m Spanish.

    Read between lines and you’ll get the answer to your last question 🙂

  6. I imagined that 😉 but elaborating a bit more the obscure answered I gave before, I can tell you I suffered it myself while working in Spain.

    Suit and tie every single day for 5 months being a fresh developer just licentiated. And not, in case you’re doubting, I didn’t see a single customer in those 5 months because I was working in an internal project at one of our offices and not in the customer premises.
    The funny part is that customers were not visiting us there (we had another office for that) so then, why the hell did we have to wear suit and tie?
    I guess the answer: “Just in case” 🙂


  7. I have a related story with the opposite outcome.

    My first proper job was as a programmer in what was effectively an R&D company at the time (no customers and very few visitors from outside). Everyone dressed smartly in at least jacket and trousers and most wore a tie. I had to commute a long way to get to work – leaving the house at 5am and not getting back until 7pm – which, amongst other things, meant having little time to iron shirts and trousers.

    So one day I just started wearing jeans and a T-Shirt. I had this speech all planned about how I didn’t really need to look smart to be smart and do my job, about how I ended up looking rumpled after 2 hours in the car anyway, and about how I felt much more comfortable so wasn’t I likely to be more productive in casual dress, etc.? But no-one commented or treated me differently.

    After a week a couple of other people started wearing jeans and T-Shirt and still nothing was said … life continued and no-one got uptight or unhappy. After a month or so, most of the team were in casual dress and then, a month later, our manager came in without his tie.

    In the end everyone found the level they were comfortable with but there was no big deal made about it: no-one got a telling off and, equally, no-one gave a speech about the ‘new dress-code’. When the company started to get customers visiting and putting people on site, everyone dressed smartly for those occasions without prompting.

    I guess my point is that effective management is about empowering people to make their own decisions, giving them guidance where necessary, and only very rarely about setting hard rules, something Benjamin’s boss has still yet to learn.

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