On Appearance

Stereotypically, geeks just aren’t the prettiest people around. (I like to think of myself as a notable exception, of course.) They’ve usually relied on the brain parts of their heads rather than the face parts to get ahead in the world, and many of them have the preconceived notion that the better the face part looks, the poorer the brain part works. Really, though, you don’t have to be pretty to do a job, and that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how to talk to geeks when their general appearance crosses to the other side of the “acceptability” line.

Many geeks simply aren’t very aware of outward appearances. They grab whatever they find in the closet (or the (hopefully) clean laundry pile) in the morning, and head out the door. That threadbare Baldur’s Gate t-shirt and ancient black faded jeans combination might look a little odd to the CFO when she swings by the cube farm, however. Or maybe you have a geek who wears skirts that would be more appropriate to bar-hopping than to crawling under desks to plug in cables. Sure, the Marketing guy might like it, but it’s not going to help her career.

What do you, as the geek leader, do in these situations? Well, first ascertain that the way the geek looks (or smells) actually is inappropriate for the environment. My husband wears jeans to work every day and would look odd in a pair of slacks, but the same thing wouldn’t fly in a law firm’s IT department. If the way the geek is dressing is actually appropriate, it’s time for you to suck it up and deal with it, even if you personally dislike it.

If the dress is actually inappropriate, it’s time for a closed-door conversation. Dropping hints just won’t cut it–if your geek were observant enough to pick up on subtlety, you wouldn’t be in this situation. Gently tell your geek that he or she should consider eliminating certain pieces from his or her wardrobe, replacing them with slacks/longer skirts/whatever might be appropriate. Don’t give the geek explicit appearance tips (“You’d look much better if you…”), but keep your suggestions consistent with company dress code and standardized company dress “norms”.

This isn’t ever an easy conversation, but it’s essential for both the geek’s career and your team’s general reputation with your company.